Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ghost-written dispatches to hometown papers

It came to a Tribune reporter’s attention this week that letters attributed to two different GOP lawmakers in weekly newspaper in our area bore striking resemblances to each other.

The first letters appeared in the Glasgow Courier and the Lewistown News-Argus. A quick Internet search of portions of the text from those two op-ed columns revealed at least seven other Republican House members posted nearly identical letters on their Facebook pages or submitted op-eds containing all or parts of the same letters.

Lang letterOsmundson letter

The first two letters were attributed to House GOP Reps. Mike Lang, of Malta, and Ryan Osmundson, of Buffalo. Except for a few paragraphs the letters were identical.

Most of the letters start with the following text:

“As your representative in Montana’s legislature, I’ve spent the past month trying to take the views of my friends and neighbors to the state government in Helena. Here’s a report on how it’s going so far.

This week saw some exciting action on the House floor. We voted on a major package of job creation bills. We all know that Montana’s small neighborhood businesses are the people who create jobs. They hire our friends and neighbors and family members. So I voted for three bills that will make it easier for businesses to do that. They all focused on limiting litigation and workers compensation costs. When a small business spends less on liability insurance, it has more money on hand to put people to work.”

From there the letters deviate a bit. Some of the letters discussed wolf bills. Others expounded on corner crossing legislation. Some discussed school choice. Most of the letters contained a paragraph or two specific to the legislator, but aside from that they appear to all be written by the same person or persons.

Plug the first sentence of those two columns into a search engine and you’ll find other letters showing up in small town papers and on lawmakers’ Facebook pages.

Smaller weekly papers typically have limited Web presences, so it’s possible the letters are appearing in small papers throughout the state.

Max Hunsaker, a spokesman for the House GOP caucus, said it’s not uncommon for party staff to craft such letters for lawmakers.

“Obviously our staff prepares a letter draft that many members then customize for their own use,” Husaker said in an email. “It's not unusual for staff to play a role in preparing written messages for elected officials. I doubt that Gov. Bullock or Sen. Baucus personally write each piece published under their names.”

That’s true. Most statewide elected officials do have staff who write communications, speeches, emails, etc. on their behalf.

However, I can’t recall an example of Sen. Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester submitting the identical op-ed and claiming it as their own.

You can read some of the other letters we found:

Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson

Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale

More examples:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Anonymous group launches website about group backed by anonymous donors

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Lowdown post, on Wednesday flyers began showing up around the Capitol featuring a mock “WANTED” poster for Christian LeFer, a “key player” in the infamous dark money group American Tradition Partnership.


The flyers directed readers to “see if your legislator is implicated” in alleged “illegal campaign coordination” by visiting

Without rehashing the whole URL snafu, which you can read about here, suffice it to say the anonymous leafleters meant to direct people to www.ATPexposed.COM.

If you go to you’ll find three posts asserting ATP illegally coordinated legislative campaigns “with extreme right-wing candidates.”

Many of the links on the apparently brand-new website are not yet populated with content, but under the heading “incriminating evidence” you’ll find an article that attempts to connect the infamous Senate GOP leadership emails I wrote about last month with ATP campaign activities.

A post titled “ARVIS and RINOpoacher” draws a connection between a now-defunct website domain once registered to LeFler and the “Average Republican Vote Index Score,” or "ARVIS,” chart contained in the documents revealed by the Great Falls Tribune last month.

ARVIS is a score developed by the Republican Legislative Leadership Committee and applied to each legislative district. The number indicates how likely voters in that district are to elect a Republican candidate in the general election. The ARVIS number is based primarily on the voting history of the district in presidential elections since most voters vote their own party in presidential races. (Democrats have a similar number for determining their party’s strength in a district called the “DPQ,” which stands for “Democratic Performance Quotient.)

An ARVIS number 50 or more means there is a greater than 50 percent chance that voters will elect a Republican in that legislative district in the general election. Republicans have used the ARVIS rating system to identify "safe Republican," "lean Republican," "lean Democrat" and "safe Democratic" districts. During election cycles the party uses the ARVIS information to determine how to allocate financial resources in those races that might be competitive in a general election. image

This undated spreadsheet was contained in the packet of emails between Senate President Jeff Essmann, Sen. Majority Leader Art Wittich, Sen. Majority Whip Frederick "Eric" Moore, Sen. Dave Lewis, and Sen. Ed Walker.

The documents showed how key members of the Senate Republican caucus, including  the current leadership team, began plotting their power play as early as September of last year.

Priest told me in an interview that the "Senate Policy Committee" is the name members of the current leadership team uses to refer to themselves and their supporters in the Senate GOP caucus.

According to

The two columns on the left contain the names of the radicals that pledged or planned to pledge their votes to the Essman and Wittich hardline ticket. The two columns on the right contain the names of the legislators that refused to adopt this extremist agenda. The top two rows contain safe Republican seats. The bottom two rows contain swing and liberal seats.

Reagan Republicans in safe conservative seats didn’t pledge themselves to the hardline ticket should look at Bruce Tutvedt as a cautionary tale. ATP and their shell groups backed out of state carpetbagger Rollan Roberts II. Roberts had only been in Montana for two years before he took on lifetime Flathead resident Tutvedt.

So did Senate GOP leaders use their party’s internal ARVIS rating system to identify which incumbent Republicans who did not support the Essmann/Wittich ticket could be defeated in a primary? Was that information shared with dark money groups?

Last month I asked Priest, Wittich and Essmann about the apparent connection between the ARVIS list and GOP legislators who faced primary challenges -- and in some cases were targeted by dark money spending. The three lawmakers said the ARVIS list referred to the general election cycle and had nothing to do with primaries.

Essmann said he did not coordinate with any third-party groups on any Republican primary campaigns.

Wittich said he “didn’t think” he coordinated with any third party groups.

“Did we participate in primaries? I think I was asked about various primaries but I don’t know about third party groups getting involved with it,” Wittich said.

Wittich said supported Kalispell Republican Sen. Bruce Tutvedt’s opponent but he said he did not coordinate with ATP.

It’s worth noting that Wittich’s law firm is listed with the Montana Secretary of State’s office as Western Tradition Partnership’s (ATP’s earlier incarnation) registered agent. According to records filed at the Montana Commissioner of Political practices, WTP paid Wittich’s firm at least $9,000 in 2010. Wittich said his firm represented WTP on one case in 2010.

“When that case began in 2010 (WTP) was an out of state company and they needed a registered agent in Montana,” Wittich said. promises to “reveal more of ATP’s agenda each week,” but there are no clues as to who is running the site.

Some simple Google sleuthing indicates whoever is running is tied to the anonymous Democrat blog A cached version of the test page dated Jan. 23 -- before the sight was launched -- displays comments on the right hand side of the blog. Those same comments appeared here and here on the blog from posts dating back to Jan. 16 and and Jan. 17. Both sights also use the same WordPress blog template.

Lots of anonymity in Montana politics these days. Is this what the U.S. Supreme Court had in mind when they ruled on Citizens United? Is this the future of politics in America?

Friday, February 8, 2013

‘Dark Money’ shots continue to ricochet in the Capitol

The “dark money” campaign finance issue reemerged in the hallways of the Capitol this week with shots fired at both Republicans and Democrats.

On Monday Garrett Lenderman  of the conservative Media Trackers blog reported that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign “held several conference calls” with Hilltop Public Solutions during his 2012 election bid.

Hilltop is a Democrat-friendly consulting firm that uses donations from prominent left-leaning organizations to fund ads promoting Democratic candidates for office. Barrett Kaiser, a former aide to Sen. Max Baucus, is a partner at Hilltop and runs it’s the Billings office.

As Kim Barker of ProPublica reported earlier this year:

Kaiser was on the board of the Montana Hunters and Anglers dark money group. Another Hilltop employee in Billings served as the treasurer for the Montana Hunters and Anglers super PAC.

Aaron Murphy, who spent seven years as a top aid to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, most recently as his campaign spokesman, joined Hilltop in January.

Lenderman reported that Bullock’s campaign listed expenditures for conference calls on June 20, July 25, and October 20, 2012, as well as payment for travel expenses on February 16 and October 20, 2012, towards S&B Public Solutions, which according to business registration records with the District of Columbia, is the official registered name for Hilltop Public Solutions.

Shortly after those conference calls too place outside groups paid Hilltop to help them run ads supporting Bullock, the report claims:

Six days after Bullock’s October conference call with Hilltop, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana (PPAMT) , which received funding from a (George) Soros-affiliated super PAC, paid Hilltop to manage an independent expenditure campaign in support of then-candidate Bullock.

PPAMT’s payments to Hilltop after the call, listed between October 26 and November 7, included $13,736 in salaries for paid canvassers and $6,000 in “management fees.”

The report doesn’t make any specific allegations of campaign finance violations, but Lenderman pointed out that Bullock criticized the role of dark money in Montana elections during his State of the State Address in late January.

“We have seen the rise of so-called ‘dark money’ groups that target candidates, yet refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent,” Bullock said. “They hide behind made-up-names and made-up newspapers. They operate out of P.O. boxes or Washington, D.C. office buildings.”

You can read Lenderman’s full report here.

Kevin O’Brien, who ran Bullock’s 2012 campaign and now serves as Bullock’s deputy chief of staff, issued the following statement when asked about the Media Trackers report:

“We don’t comment every time a dark-money group, masquerading as a media outlet, levels unsubstantiated and misleading accusations.”

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Media Trackers is tied to the Tea Party-backed group American Majority and is itself funded by anonymous conservative donors. On its website Media Trackers touts itself as a "conservative nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative watchdog dedicated to promoting accountability in the media and government across Montana through cutting-edge research and communications initiatives."

‘Wanted’ posters and websites

Things got even more interesting on Wednesday when flyers began showing up around the Capitol featuring a mock “WANTED” poster for Christian LeFer, a “key player” in the infamous dark money group American Tradition Partnership.

ATP Exposed

The flyers directed readers to “see if your legislator is implicated” in alleged “illegal campaign coordination” by visiting

The only problem is the anonymous creators printed the wrong URL on the bottom of their flyer. The leafleters apparently meant to print www.ATPexposed.COM.

Someone was quick to capitalize on the mistake by anonymously snapping up the domain for late Wednesday night and redirecting it to the website for the Stronger Montana Fund, another mysterious  "issue advocacy organization” that has already began running television ads on behalf of Baucus.

I’ll address more details about the website in a follow-up post.

In this brave new world of dark money, anonymous political attacks and cyber shenanigans we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of stuff.

It’s (almost) official: Champ Edmunds to challenge Baucus in 2014

The first rumors of a GOP challenger to powerful incumbent Montana Sen. Max Baucus started swirling last month.

Chuck Johnson reported in January that second-term state Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, was considering throwing his hat in the ring. At the time, Edmunds was coy but noncommittal about his interest in the race:

“We’re doing some exploratory work, but right now, we need to focus on this session,” Edmunds said in January. “We’re not running. We’re exploring.“ 

Well apparently Edmunds doing a bit more than exploring.

In an email blast sent late last night or early this morning with the subject line “Getting Washington Back to Basics...,” Edmunds effectively announced his intentions to run for the U.S. Senate (emphases not mine):

Dear Conservative,

You may have read that Karl Rove is trying to suppress grass roots conservatives in the next election cycle. But there's good news! Here in Montana, we have a choice between a party establishment-backed candidate, and an authentic conservative.

My name is Champ Edmunds, and I would like to be your next U.S. Senator.

I have not officially announced because I am working on behalf of my constituents in the Montana House, but conservatives must start working now if we are going to win in 2014!

Today, the Washington Post called me "very conservative across the board," and said the party establishment would prefer a different candidate for U.S. Senate.

I bet they would! No way am I going to go along to get along. No way am I going to cave on issues like raising taxes. No way am I going to let the system change me.

That makes me the kind of candidate the establishment fears.

If you want to support a real conservative for U.S. Senate, please go to and make the most generous donation you can. Even $5 will help. Together we can get Washington D.C. back to basics!

Then, go have a look at what the Washington Post said. They meant it as an insult, but I consider it very flattering. "Very conservative across the board" -- that's me.


Champ Edmunds

P.S. This Washington Post article just came out today! We have to respond immediately. Please go to and make any financial contribution that will fit within your budget.

P.S.S. Also, join me on facebook!

A Washington Post’s “The Fix” blog on Thursday listed Edmunds among the “Six Senate candidates who could foment GOP civil war.” According to The Fix:

The least-known name on this list is one to keep an eye on. The GOP field to face Sen. Max Baucus (D) is expected to be a crowded one, and Edmunds has already signaled his interest and has reserved the Web domain, where he’s accepting donations. He’s very conservative across the board, including spearheading efforts on illegal immigration, fighting against same-day voter registration and criticizing a Justice Department probe into sexual assault allegations in Missoula. Edmunds is the kind of outspoken conservative who is happy to take on basically any conservative cause and happy to speak bluntly about it. That’s not terribly helpful in a Senate campaign, though. Establishment Republicans would much prefer someone like former state senator Corey Stapleton, who announced his campaign this week.

Former Billings Republican legislator Corey Stapleton, who finished second in the 2012 GOP gubernatorial primary, announced Wednesday that he is seeking the Republican nomination for Senate.


In a one-minute internet ad announcing his candidacy Stapleton said he has the “leadership” and “integrity” to represent Montana in the U.S. Senate.

“I want to make life better for Montanans — for all of us, our kids, our grandkids. And that’s why I’m running for the United States Senate.”

Think its a little early for a 2014 election cycle? Think again folks. We’re already off to the races.

A mysterious “issue advocacy” group called “Stronger Montana Fund” has already begun running TV ads supporting Baucus.

Not that Baucus needs a lot of outside help. The powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee already had $3.6 million in cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period. By the time Baucus’ campaign closes the books on the first quarter of 2013 on March 31 his campaign will likely have close to $4.3 million or more in his war chest.

Republicans are going to have a big hill to climb to unseat Baucus, who hasn’t had a legitimate GOP challenge since1996, when Denny Rehberg came within 5 percentage points.

Some observers think the only real threat to Baucus would come from a Democratic primary challenger. Former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s name has been bandied about for years, but Schweitzer insists he’s not interested. 

Last fall I asked Schweitzer about whether he’d consider challenging Baucus, to which Schweitzer responded:

“I can't even imagine being in a body that spends all of its time masquerading like they're actually doing something.”

Whether we like it or not, the 2014 election cycle is already upon us.

Buckle up.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Campaign finance watchdog: Texas fracking billionaires gave $51k to Montana GOP candidates in 2012

According to a report by the non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group National Institute for Money in State Politics, Texas fracking billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks and their spouses gave  a collective total of $51,040 to more than 70 GOP legislative candidates in 2012. According to the report, in most instances they gave the maximum amount.
You can see the contributions from Dan, Staci, Dan and Staci, Farris, JoAnn, and Farris and JoAnn at

“Sixty-four of the candidates they supported won; 63 are now legislators, and Tim Fox is the attorney general. Across both chambers, 70 percent of Republican legislators and 42 percent of the legislative body as a whole received contributions from the Wilkses during the 2012 election.”

You can read the full report here.

It’s worth a read.

The Follow The Money report draws attention to Dec. 13, 2012 Billings Gazette article detailing how the Wilks brothers are buying up huge tracts of land in eastern Montana:

“Near where the borders of Fergus, Musselshell and Golden Valley counties meet south of the Little Snowy Mountains, two billionaire Texas brothers have quietly collected more than 177,000 acres of ranch land in the last two years.”

According to Gazette reporter Brett French, the Wilks brothers own at least 276,000 acres in seven counties in eastern Montana.

According to Forbes, the Wilks brothers are worth an estimated $1.4 billion each. The Wilks brothers started out running a family masonry business in Texas and Oklahoma before venturing into hydraulic fracturing in and oil field serves in 2002.

According to Follow The Money some people are are concerned the Wilks brothers are amassing land to frack.

Regulation of fracking is largely left to the states; the EPA has limited authority to regulate the industry. Consequently, state lawmakers and officials determine the regulations and permitting requirements for drillers.