Montana’s ‘dark money’ enforcement, laws still in court

HELENA – While the new documentary film “Dark Money” highlights Montana’s efforts to shine a light on unreported campaign spending, the state is still fighting a lawsuit that seeks to void its primary enforcement laws.

State campaign regulators also are pursuing another related court case of their own, to penalize conservative groups accused of making illegal donations and not properly reporting their spending in Montana elections in 2010 and 2012.

“We’re not just holding the candidates responsible for what happened in 2010 and 2012,” says Jaime MacNaughton, attorney for the state Office of Political Practices. “We’re holding the corporations and the political committees responsible as well.”

The latter case, brought against a dozen groups active in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns in Montana, has not been scheduled for trial yet in state District Court in Helena.

One of the lead defendants – Montana Citizens for Right to Work, an anti-union group – has asked the presiding judge to strike down as unconstitutional the laws used to take the groups to court.

Similar claims against Montana’s campaign-finance laws have been made in a lawsuit in federal court, brought by Montanans for Community Development, a free-market group that says it won’t comply with Montana campaign-reporting requirements.

Its lead lawyer is James Bopp, a prominent critic of campaign-finance regulation and an attorney who represented Citizens United, the group whose court case led to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on corporate spending on elections.

Bopp told MTN News Wednesday that Montana laws regulating campaign spending and reporting are so vague that enforcers of the laws can use and have used them to “target Republicans and conservative Republicans in a partisan way that is unprecedented.”

Forcing certain groups to reveal their donors and spending harms their members’ rights of association, because it could unduly subject them to political pressure and retaliation, Bopp said.

However, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Missoula upheld the Montana laws in an October 2016 decision.

Bopp has appealed that decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are scheduled in April. Bopp said he’s prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

MacNaughton said the state has argued that corporations like Montanans for Community Development can spend money on election communications, but must report its donors and spending.

“We’ll let corporations speak as long as they report and disclose everything that they’re spending, to try to influence their vote,” she said.

“Dark Money,” by Montana filmmaker Kimberly Reed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and had its Montana premier Feb. 16 in Missoula.

A good portion of the film focuses on the state’s actions against several Republican candidates accused of accepting illegal corporate contributions in 2010 and 2012, from loosely connected conservative political groups that mostly did not report their donors or spending.

Those actions culminated with the 2016 trial of former state Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, who fought the allegations. A jury found that Wittich violated the law and he was later fined $68,000 and ordered to pay an additional $16,000 in court costs.

The state is pursuing a similar case against the dozen groups accused of illegally aiding Wittich and other Republican candidates, by making illegal corporate donations and failing to report where they got their money.

The state’s lawsuit alleges the groups were financed and coordinated by the National Right to Work Committee, which has denied the allegations.

Bopp is representing National Right to Work, which has asked to be dismissed from the case.

The parties are waiting for state District Judge James Reynolds of Helena to rule on several motions in the case, before it will be set for trial.