HELENA — A Montana legislator who previously gave money to the American Tradition Partnership said Monday the secretive conservative group should be investigated for wrongly registering as a nonprofit while spending to influence elections.
Meanwhile, another lawmaker whose check ended up in the group’s account claimed he doesn’t know how it got there.
Bank deposits under the group’s original name, Western Tradition Partnership, were released this month under court order. An examination revealed the group raised big chunks of money and relies on many small donors.
The WTP bank records were released as part of the state’s ongoing case against the group involving allegations of illegal electioneering.
At least one donor, state Senate President Pro Tempore Bruce Tutvedt, is now unhappy with the group’s tactics and thinks there should be an investigation.
In recent primary elections, American Tradition Partnership has sent attack mailers against Republicans it considers too liberal and then attacked Democrats in general elections.
Along the way, the group has made enemies on both sides of the aisle.
ATP has previously denied coordinating with candidates and argues it is involved in education efforts and not electioneering as alleged by state officials.
The group, organized as a tax-exempt social welfare advocacy group, has perhaps gained the most notoriety for its lawsuits against campaign finance laws that successfully overturned Montana’s 100-year-old ban on some corporate spending in elections. It also led the charge against the state’s campaign contribution limits, which resulted in a brief suspension of those limits last month.
ATP did not return a message Monday seeking comment.
Tutvedt, a Kalispell Republican, gave the group $35 on Feb. 10, 2010, but said he doesn’t remember why he did so. Tutvedt said he has been “scratching his head” trying to remember after the WTP bank records were made public last week, and can only guess he gave the money during a Republican Party winter kickoff event that was held on that date.
The donation didn’t buy Tutvedt any favors. He said he was trashed earlier this year by the group in a rough primary battle that he won.
Tutvedt said he suspects his opponent was using the same firm as ATP to handle direct mail. He believes the group should be investigated, saying it is illegal for a nonprofit group registered under 501(c)(4) of the IRS code to coordinate with political candidates.
“From anecdotal evidence it looks like there was coordination,” Tutvedt said. “To have unlimited money hidden behind a cloak of secrecy with no requirement to tell the truth leads to a very poor process for the politics of Montana.”
The commissioner of political practices has said an investigation into those issues, which in some ways overlap its ongoing, two-year-long case against ATP, would require a formal complaint.
Another small donor reached by The Associated Press gave $35, the same amount as Tutvedt, on the same day as Tutvedt in 2010. Jason Thielman, who played an integral role in Steve Daines’ successful campaign for Congress this year, said he thinks the group held a breakfast forum at the GOP winter event.
“I think I was paying for my eggs and bacon that morning,” he said.
A check from Republican legislator Dan Kennedy of Laurel also was deposited by WTP — but under far different circumstances.
The $557.50 check from his campaign account was written shortly after his June 2010 primary win — and after WTP sent a bunch of mailers attacking his opponent, Debra Bonogofsky of Billings.
Kennedy said he wrote his check to a company called “Direct Mail,” and doesn’t know how it ended up being deposited in a WTP account.
Bonogofsky said she believes WTP may have been coordinating with Kennedy, who refused to answer questions about who he was working with at the “Direct Mail” company.
“I wrote a check to Direct Mail. I had a Direct Mail piece sent out,” Kennedy said before hanging up on The Associated Press.
One of the authorized signers of checks written by WTP, Allison Lefer of Livingston, also runs a business called Direct Mail & Communications. Lefer has previously said she ran direct mail campaigns for candidates that are separate from the WTP work, which she said was done primarily by her husband, Christian LeFer.
ATP executive director Donald Ferguson said in an email last week that Kennedy “may have donated to ATP, but did not do so at our directions.” On Friday, the group sent another email blaming Wells Fargo for depositing the Kennedy check into the wrong account.
The WTP donations checks came from utilities, farmers and businessman in Colorado, Montana, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and California. The bulk of the checks came from individuals who donated as little as $5.
Some came with notes, such as a $20 donation which specified it was for the “fight against socialism.”
The utility PPL Montana donated $1,000 to Western Tradition Partnership with a check signed by Lisa Perry on April 2, 2009. Perry is listed as PPL’s community affairs manager in Billings and did not return a call seeking comment on Monday.
Some of the biggest individual donors who contributed as Western Tradition Partnership was just getting off the ground included Norman Asbjornson of Tulsa, Okla., who donated $50,000 on Aug. 21, 2008; EIS Solutions of Frisco, Colo., which donated $12,500 on Sept. 11, 2008; Leroy McCaw of Ignacio, Colo., who donated $10,000; and Ladeine Thompson of Kalispell, who donated $10,000 on April 22, 2008.
Denver homebuilder Larry Mizel donated $50,000 on Oct. 6, 2010, and heating and air conditioning company Aaon Inc., of Tulsa, Okla., donated $20,000 that same year.
Doug Lair of Big Timber donated $5,000 in April of 2010.
A man named Doug Lair is the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit that led to a temporary suspension of the state’s limits on campaign contributions just a month before the election and has recently been quoted in press releases as the group’s Montana director.
He did not return a telephone call seeking comment on Monday.
Associated Press writer Matt Volz contributed to this report.