Monday, October 29, 2012

What everyone’s talking about: Big Sky, Big Money

In case you haven’t seen it yet, this ProPublica/Frontline report investigating the shadowy “dark money” group American Tradition Partnership is causing quite a stir in Big Sky Country this morning (emphases mine):

The boxes landed in the office of Montana investigators in March 2011.

Found in a meth house in Colorado, they were somewhat of a mystery, holding files on 23 conservative candidates in state races in Montana. They were filled with candidate surveys and mailers that said they were paid for by campaigns, and fliers and bank records from outside spending groups. One folder was labeled "Montana $ Bomb."

The documents pointed to one outside group pulling the candidates' strings: a social welfare nonprofit called Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP.

Altogether, the records added up to possible illegal "coordination" between the nonprofit and candidates for office in 2008 and 2010, said a Montana investigator and a former Federal Election Commission chairman who reviewed the material. Outside groups are allowed to spend money on political campaigns, but not to coordinate with candidates.

"My opinion, for what it's worth, is that WTP was running a lot of these campaigns," said investigator Julie Steab of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, who initially received the boxes from Colorado.

It’s a long read, but well worth it.

This Oct. 29 ProPublica/Frontline report is just the tip of the iceberg. A series of investigative reports by ProPublica, Frontline and The Center for Public Integrity dig deep into the question: “who is funding attacks on Montana’s election laws?”

The reportage will continue on PBS tomorrow, Oct. 30, when Frontline airs what former Montana Public Radio capital bureau reporter Emilie Ritter referred to on her facebook page as “a big ol’  journalism bomb"”:

Watch Big Sky, Big Money, an investigation with Marketplace on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

The program airs at 8:30 p.m. on Montana PBS, but cick here to check your local listings. It will also be available online beginning Oct. 30.

In this Oct. 22 report, journalists Kim Barker, of ProPublica, and Emma Schwartz, of Frontline, uncover evidence that Western Tradition Partnership “misled the IRS when it applied for the tax-exempt status that shields its donors from being publicly disclosed.”

Documents obtained by ProPublica and Frontline show that Western Tradition Partnership, now known as American Tradition Partnership, said it would not attempt to sway elections when it asked the IRS to recognize it as a tax-exempt social welfare organization in late 2008.

Shortly before submitting the application, however, Western Tradition Partnership, which bills itself as a "grassroots lobbying" organization dedicated to fighting radical environmentalists, and a related political committee sent out fliers weighing in on candidates for Montana state office. The mailers blitzed districts in Montana days before the Republican primary.

Also last Monday The Center For Public Integrity published this report showing that a millionaire furniture store mogul from Colorado dumped $300,000 to get ATP “on its feet”:

In its 2008 application for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization, ATP listed its “primary donor” as Jacob Jabs, Colorado’s largest furniture retailer and a donor to Republican candidates and causes. Jabs pledged a $300,000 contribution to get ATP on its feet, according to IRS records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Jabs, through a spokesman, on Monday said he did not make a donation and has "never heard of" ATP or the group's previous incarnation.

"He did not commit to the funds indicated by Athena Dalton in the filing so clearly he did not give them funds," wrote Charlie Shaulis, director of communications for American Furniture Warehouse, Jabs' company, in an email to I-News Network in Colorado.

Dalton wrote a letter to the IRS asking the agency to speed up the process for awarding it nonprofit  status. The letter states that the approval was needed quickly, otherwise Jabs would not make a contribution. The agency gave it the thumbs up four days later.

All of this reporting is coming out in the two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, and tomorrow’s Frontline exposé is exactly one week from election day.

How will “dark money” impact our elections?

We might not know for months, or even years what the full effect has been or will be. But I for one am glad the rest of the country is taking an interest in Montana’s elections and examining how Big Sky Country has become a petri dish for experiments in “dark money” manipulation of politics.

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