THE BLOG
10/26/2010 05:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

State Probe Opens Lid on Secretive Political Group

Last week, thousands of voters in state Sen. Gail Schwartz's Senate district found a disturbing political attack flyer in their mailboxes. The face of Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, was superimposed on the body (and hair) of Donald Trump, telling them by name, "YOU'RE FIRED." The group's message to voters: Schwartz's support of renewable energy is sending traditional energy workers to the unemployment lines.

Schwartz called the attack "deplorable, hate-filled mail that distorts the public record," but that's the sort of over-the-top rhetoric that the group Western Tradition Partnership, which sent out the mailers, specializes in. A right-wing, pro-industry group, Western Tradition Partnership wages 11th-hour attacks against liberals and moderates using anonymous donors and superheated campaign rhetoric as its weapons.

Last week, it had one big win and one big loss, not in Colorado, but in Montana, where it was first formed. On Monday, it won a major judgment that found Montana's century-old campaign finance laws unconstitutional. On Thursday, the group was found in violation of Montana campaign laws for failing to register with the state or disclose who had paid for its ads.

Its behavior "raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process," announced Dennis Unsworth, Montana's commissioner of political practices, and will likely result in a fine. More interesting than his findings, though, is his investigation, which opened the door on the secretive group active in Colorado and Montana races.

Founded in Bozeman, Mont., by two conservative Montana Republicans, former U.S. Rep. Ron Marlenee and former state Rep. John Sinrud, the group is also registered in Denver to Scott Shires, a Republican political operative with a history of election law violations. That includes a $7,150 fine he has failed to pay for violations related to attack ads in a pair of Garfield County commissioner races in 2008 - races in which Western Tradition Partnership was also involved.

It's executive director, Donny Ferguson, is based in suburban Washington, DC, where he runs a right-wing public relations firm and serves as spokesman for the national Libertarian Party.

The group, whose website urges supporters to "help fight gang green," has chosen targets in Colorado and Montana. In a PowerPoint presentation Unsworth obtained, Western Tradition Partnership boasted to potential donors of winning 14 of 19 targeted races in 2008.

"You can just sit back on election night and see what a difference you've made," the group told potential donors.

The group's anonymous attacks have put it at odds with its foes, and with officials. It is suing Longmont, Colo., challenging that city's campaign finance disclosure laws after contributing a reported $10,000 to help unseat the mayor and a city councilwoman.

The group, which targets moderate Republicans in primary battles and Democrats in general elections, has won enemies on both sides of the political spectrum. Montana state Sen. John Esp, a Republican, told the Associated Press the group was "a bunch of unprincipled cowards."

Montana's investigation stemmed from a complaint by Great Falls, Mont., lawyer Benjamin Graybill, who alleged the group and its affiliate, the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, had sent out campaign flyers attacking a Democrat running for state Senate but failed to comply with state laws requiring it to disclose who paid for the ads and to register with the state.

The group, which describes itself as a "grassroots lobbying organization dedicated to fighting environmental extremism and promoting responsible development and management of land, water and natural resources," insists the mailers were educational, not campaign material.

Unsworth said recent tax documents filed by the group showed a budget of $660,000 in 2008, and that the group projected to spend $537,000 to influence Montana elections in 2010, and $8.2 million in targeting 16 Senate and 30 House races.

In its pitch to potential donors, the group boasted, "there's no limit to how much you can give" and "no politician, no bureaucrat and no radical environmentalist will ever know you" about the contribution.

State investigators allege Western Tradition Partnership has sought donations from officers of several foreign corporations or their affiliates, including corporations based in Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Ferguson has called that "a complete lie." He said the group plans to take legal action against Unsworth, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

In court, Western Tradition Partnership has had more luck. On Monday, Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock sided with the group in throwing out the state's 1912 Corrupt Practices Act. The law, which hearkens from a public backlash against the "Copper Kings" and their grip on state politics, the law banned corporations from making independent political expenditures.

In light of the Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision, which struck down similar prohibitions nationwide, Sherlock found the law unconstitutional. Attorney General Steve Bullock, who argued Montana's law was unique and should stand, has vowed to take the case to the state Supreme Court.

"This isn't just about our history: Two former secretaries of state and other experts in the field testified that an influx of corporate spending will corrupt the political process and drown out the voices of everyday Montanans," Bullock said in a release.

The partnership filed the lawsuit alongside Bozeman's Champion Painting Inc., and the Montana Shooting Sports Association. "There's a difference between groups like us and the Exxons of the world," Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Assoication, told the Wall Street Journal. "We don't want to recreate the Copper Kings era, when they owned Montana and we were their servants."

Critics of the court decision, though, see the role of Western Tradition Partnership as reminiscent of the corporate manipulation that gave rise to Montana's law.

"Re-creating the Copper Kings era is not an unintended consequence of this case," wrote blogger Meteor Blades on the liberal Daily Kos website. "It's the whole point."

David Frey writes in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Follow him at www.davidmfrey.com.