In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, the PBS show Frontline has revealed the seedy underbelly of secret money in elections, with a full-hour expose of Montana politics and a secretive right-wing group known as American Tradition Partnership, or ATP.
Numerous Republican candidates might have worked too closely with ATP, and could be in trouble legally if not electorally. They might be going to the pokey (meaning the clink, the one in Deer Lodge.)
The short story is that the 2010 election, in which the Tea Party swept into control of the Montana legislature, may have featured massive illegalities. Under state law, third party groups, the ones like American Tradition Partnership which spend masses of unregulated, unreported money, are legally barred from coordinating with candidates. But several legislative candidates and the ATP have been caught red handed, working together, in violation of the law. The Frontline documentary reveals that a secret stash of incriminating documents has been found, showing extensive communications between Republican legislative candidates and the ATP, and showing that the ATP was even preparing campaign material for them.
The Havre Daily News, for example, reported today that GOP legislator Wendy Warburton appears to have been in direct communication with the group, even going so far as to send them a “signature stamp,” presumably so they could send out mailings on her behalf, using her signature. That’s likely to be found illegal under Montana law.
Files on Mike Miller, Ed Butcher, Bob Wagner, Joel Boniek, Jerry O’Neil and Derek Skees were also featured on Frontline. Again, groups and candidates cannot coordinate on campaign communications.
Candidates might be subjecting themselves to a range of penalties, including removal from office, fines, or worse. The question is whether there is a prosecutor out there who is willing to begin looking into this stuff. Generally, county attorneys stay away from political stuff, leaving it to the Commissioner of Political Practices.
Worse, the ATP’s headquarters is revealed by the documentary to be nothing more than a P.O. Box at a UPS store in Washington DC, even though the group is spending tens of millions of dollars on elections around the country and is the most influential source of money in Montana politics. They were estimated to have spent well over a million bucks on just a handful of state legislative races in 2010. They’d send mail to voters, which looked very much like electioneering material, something that is illegal if you are hiding who your donors are.
Not all ATP’s donors have been able to hide. Investigative journalist Paul Abowd this week uncovered a document that revealed one of ATP’s largest bankrollers-a Colorado anti-union group called Coloradans for Economic Growth.
And I would say that this documentary, above all, is an outright humiliation for the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who this summer rejected a request by Montana to reconsider the Citizens United ruling in light of the ATP’s shady, unreported, anonymously funded activities in Montana. In rejecting Montana’s plea, Kennedy offered a single paragraph describing why he (the swing vote on the court) was refusing to consider the matter. He wrote that there was nothing that led him to believe that the ATP’s activities could lead to “corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
Kennedy, if he watched Frontline this week, probably wishes he could have that one back. Because he is now revealed to be not a brilliant jurist but a stupid old man, who got duped by a bunch of bad actors. Soon, groups like ATP will completely own our state and federal governments, using corporate money, installing candidates into office, from a P.O. Box, never revealing who the donors are. And the Supreme Court believes that this is all perfectly okay.