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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: In politics, tracking foes, allies proves troubling

The battle to keep money out of politics has long since been lost, but efforts to unveil the enemies – friends even – goes on.

In Western Washington, longtime state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, says he is the victim of contradictory claims about his voting record on reproductive rights from two groups that apparently have the same roots.

A flier circulated by a group with the backing of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, Senate Democrats and labor goes after Sheldon for his votes on abortion. A competing flier from American Values First urges voters to support Sheldon for supporting a budget that includes money for Planned Parenthood and “reproductive freedom.”

The executive director of the DLCC is Michael Sargeant. The president of AVF is … Michael Sargeant.

Sheldon wants an investigation into AVF’s source of funds – so far undisclosed – noting, too, that “Values” apparently does not include compliance with Washington law, which requires registration as a political action committee.

The group maintains it is a social welfare organization, not a PAC.

Sheldon is not in the best of positions to allege mistaken identity. He sided with the Republicans in the Majority Coalition that took control of the Senate two years ago, so Democrats are running “fellow” Democrat Irene Bowling against him. Bowling disavows any knowledge about AVF or its fliers.

So Sheldon’s ally in his effort to find out where the money for the fliers is … the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

While Sheldon’s foes merely try to sow confusion while concealing their hand, Montana campaign laws are under a serious assault in the federal courts.

Montanans for Community Development wants to run ads supporting energy development. The group is registered as a tax-exempt organization, which means it cannot endorse political candidates, but its ads contain pictures of legislators who oppose and support its efforts. If a picture is worth a thousand words, voters could not miss the message.

But the ads are not running because Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices has barred their use until MCD registers as a political committee and discloses its donors. So far, the state has beaten off attempts in U.S. District Court to have its restrictions on the ads enjoined.

The judge hearing the case called the implications of MCD’s ambitions “staggering.” If a tax-exempt group can flout prohibitions against political activity so brazenly, the law becomes meaningless.

But unmentioned in news reports are the equally troubling implications of prior restraint – blocking the publication of any material. From The Pentagon Papers to Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency revelations, that’s a dangerous place for government.

Montana law has strong punitive provisions, including removal of candidate names from the ballot. That’s the way to go, there and in Sheldon’s Mason County whereabouts.

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