Colorado pro-business group gets Montana corporate campaign spending ban struck down

A pro-business lobbying group with Colorado ties Monday cheered a Montana judge’s decision to strike down that state’s 98-year-old ban on corporate political expenditures, even as Montana prepares to rule on numerous campaign complaints against the group.

The Western Tradition Partnership website.
Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) challenged the Montana law meant to curtail the influence of railroads and mining interests in state politics in 1912. According to the Wall Street Journal, state district court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled that the First Amendment “protects the political speech of corporations, including their right to make independent expenditures to support or oppose political candidates or parties.”

Sherlock, according to the Journal, wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in January took precedence over Montana’s law, which the state held was still constitutional. Democratic Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said he would appeal Sherlock’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.

“The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from the government, not to shield politicians from criticism,” Western Tradition Partnership Executive Director Donald Ferguson wrote on the group’s website Monday. “The court has restored fairness and balance to elections by allowing employers to speak freely about the radical environmentalist candidates and issues that threaten your right to earn a living.”

Western Tradition Partnership, a 501(c)4 first registered in Colorado by Republican operative Scott Shires in 2008, made headlines recently with an unflattering mailer targeting state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, for her support of a bill aimed at reducing coal-fired power plant emissions on Colorado’s Front Range.

Western Tradition was very active in a now-infamous Garfield County commissioner election in 2008 in which its registered agent, Shires, was fined more than $7,000 for improper electioneering under the banner of another group, the Colorado League of Taxpayers. He still owes the state more than $8,000 in fines, the Colorado Independent revealed earlier this month.

Several campaign complaints against Western Tradition Partnership, some dating back to 2008, are currently being investigated by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

“We’re working on a complaint against an outfit called Western Tradition Partnership and Scott Shires’ name comes up,” Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth told the Colorado Independent Monday. “We have a decision on allegations against Western Tradition Partnership’s activity in Montana in 2008 that is just about complete.”

In one of those cases, Great Falls attorney Benjamin Graybill, arguing on behalf of Montana state Senate candidate Brad Hamlett, alleges that a flyer attacking Hamlett didn’t include proper “paid for by” disclaimers and that the group responsible for the mailers, the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, did not file required finance reports. That group was identified as a project of the Western Tradition Partnership.

Western Tradition Partnership and Shires both have long histories of controversial and questionable campaign practices in Colorado, and WTP also is the subject of campaign complaints this year in Montana.

Blindsided by the group in her Republican state House primary this summer, Debra Bonogofsky filed a complaint similar to Hamlett’s 2008 complaint. Unsworth, however, said it will be a while before the state rules on current allegations against the group.

“We’re still working on ’08,” he said. “We just can’t keep up with the work, the complaints. We’re just completely overwhelmed. The legislature cut our legal budget back to next to nothing and we’re just hobbling along.”

While Western Tradition Partnership was first registered in Colorado to an Aurora address connected to Shires, it now lists a Washington, D.C. address on its website. Executive director Ferguson lists a phone number with a Virginia area code.

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