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.

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