HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A state judge has ruled that American Tradition Partnership violated Montana’s state campaign-finance and election laws.
Lee Newspapers of Montana reports that District Judge Jeff Sherlock of Helena on Friday ruled the group in 2008 acted as a political committee and must report its spending and donors. Sherlock cited the group’s failure to turn over records requested by the court in making his decision.
ATP used its corporate, nonprofit status “as a subterfuge to avoid compliance with state disclosure and disclaimer laws during the 2008 Montana election cycle,” Sherlock said.
The American Tradition Partnership claims tax-exempt status as a nonprofit social welfare organization that does not advocate for specific candidates. As a result, it says it should not have to reveal its members and spending.
But the state and the critics of the group say that status is a sham used to hide donors, and that it illegally coordinated with the campaigns of conservative candidates. Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murray said he’ll probably seek financial penalties against the group following Sherlock’s ruling.
ATP attorney James Brown said the group’s board of directors is considering its next move.
In October 2010, then-Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth ruled the group was working directly to influence elections and was therefore required by state law to report its spending and donors. The group responded with a lawsuit against the state challenging the ruling. The state in return asked the group to turn over numerous records as part of the discovery process before the trial. The group refused to provide many of those documents.
Three weeks ago, Sherlock dismissed most of the group’s lawsuit, citing the group’s failure to produce the requested documents. He also gave the group 10 days to produce additional records, but Brown and ATP officials asked for more time.
Sherlock on Friday rejected that request, noting the group waited until the last day to file the request and that the court had ordered the information to be produced months earlier.
Friday’s ruling “shows no person or entity is above the law,” said State Assistant Attorney General Mike Black, who defended the state against the lawsuit filed by ATP.
Brown saw the ruling from a different perspective.
“In light of this order, if you’re going to challenge the state’s ability to regulate you, you do not want to be the one who files suit, because all of the materials that you want to keep private, become public, just because you filed suit,” Brown said. “It is going to discourage people from filing suit to vindicate their constitutional rights.”
In a related matter, the group’s executive director, Donny Ferguson, said on Thursday he was leaving the group to become a spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.
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