May 21, 2012

Meet The Group Trying To Use Citizens United To Kill Montana’s Ban On Corporate Spending In Elections

Meet The Group Trying To Use Citizens United To Kill Montana's Ban On Corporate Spending In ElectionsLast week, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) submitted an amicus brief ” urging the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand Montana’s century-old ban on corporate money in political campaigns despite the court’s Citizens United ruling two years ago declaring unconstitutional a similar federal law sponsored by McCain.”

The challenge to Montana’s ban on corporate money comes from a shadowy group called American Tradition Partnership (ATP).

ATP is a group based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area that was launched in 2008 as a 501(c)4 lobbying group called Western Tradition Partnership. It was then renamed American Tradition Partnership. The policy agenda listed on its website runs the gamut of anti-environmental causes. It advocates for everything from curbing environmental lawsuits to winning tax holidays for energy producers.

ATP was found to have broken campaign finance laws in Montana in 2010 when it failed to properly register and report its donors as it staged electoral interventions on behalf of polluter-friendly lawmakers. Montana journalist Sue Sturgis wrote at the time:

A decision issued last year by the Montana Commission of Political Practices found that [ATP] had broken state campaign laws by failing to register as a political committee or properly report its donors and spending. The investigation discovered that the group had solicited unlimited contributions to support pro-mining, pro-logging and pro-development candidates in Montana and avoided disclosing the contributions by passing them along to a sham political action committee that in turn ran attack ads against Democrats.

The group decided to sue to overturn Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912. Although a lower judge ruled that the Citizens United decision meant the law was unconstitutional, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Citizens United does not affect the law.

When ATP was still Western Tradition Partnership, it was lead by Donald Ferguson, who is now on the site as ATP’s National Director of Media & Public Relations. I tried calling Ferguson for comment but he did not pick up. The “main number” listed on ATP’s site — 1-888-987-USA1has apparently been disconnected. What I could find about Ferguson was a Twitter account that is apparently his and a personal blog called The Ferguson Forum, where he opines largely about Washington-area sports.

Because it has a 501(c)4 tax status, the group does not have to disclose its donors or much about its funding. The group has a 501(c)3 educational arm, the American Tradition Institute (ATI), but it there were no 990 financial disclosure forms that are required by the IRS listed on Guidestar, which logs these forms on the web. ATI’s executive director is Tom Tanton, who, unsurprisingly, has both worked at an Exxon-funded think tank and headed up an energy consulting company.

If you don’t want shadowy polluter-allied lobbies and think tanks overturning state campaign finance laws, you should help us fight the influence of Big Money in our politics. Thank McCain and Whitehouse for standing against money in politics here.