The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices late last week ruled that a Denver-based political nonprofit likely violated Montana campaign finance and disclosure laws and should be hit with a civil penalty action.Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), a 501(c)4 originally registered in Colorado in 2008 by Republican operative Scott Shires, has been active in state, county and city elections in both Montana and Colorado, drawing criticism for last-minute attack mailers like the one aimed at Colorado state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, earlier this month.
“WTP’s failure to register as a political committee and publicly disclose the true source and disposition of funds it used to oppose candidates for the Montana Legislature [in 2008] frustrates the purpose of Montana’s Campaign Finance and Practices Act [and] raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process and clearly justifies an action seeking a civil penalty,” Commissioner Dennis Unsworth wrote in a 43-page report (pdf).
“Western Tradition Partnership has always obeyed all applicable campaign finance laws and regulations,” WTP Executive Director Donald Ferguson replied on the group’s website. “In response, WTP intends to file an action against the Commissioner of Political Practices in order to vindicate its First Amendment free speech rights.”
While his decision was based on WTP’s actions in a 2008 Montana State Legislature race, Unsworth in his report repeatedly references WTP’s involvement in a 2008 Garfield County commissioner race in Colorado in which the two Democrats were hit with fake newspapers and a barrage of mailers and narrowly lost to their Republican opponents.
WTP registered agent Shires, a GOP consultant with a long history of questionable campaign practices, still has not paid a Colorado Secretary of State’s Office fine for improper electioneering in that race under the banner of another political organization. Unsworth references Shires’ past history and that unpaid fine in his report.
WTP’s Ferguson, however, questions the timing of Unsworth’s findings.
“The timing of the opinion is interesting,” Ferguson wrote. “Earlier this week, WTP won its case against the Commissioner on whether Montana could prohibit corporations from directly expending funds on independent expenditures. Further, this opinion was released less than two weeks away from the Nov. 2, 2010 election date.”
While Unsworth found insufficient evidence of any coordination between WTP and any particular candidate, he said the group’s tactics continues to taint the current election cycle.
“We were able to get to these ’08 complaints and it appears to be similar activity to what they’re doing this year,” Unsworth told the Colorado Independent, “so I’m hoping that the decision will be helpful to at least call them on this charade that they’re not working elections, that they’re just talking about issues.”
WTP is also the subject of a complaint by a Republican who lost in a Montana state House race this summer.