Campaign Finance
9:28 pm
Wed October 16, 2013

Political Practices Commissioner declares ATP violated MT election laws

Montana’s commissioner of political practices is ruling the conservative dark money group American Tradition Partnership illegally coordinated election activities with a former state legislator.

Commissioner Jonathan Motl said Wednesday ATP distributed campaign mailers in coordination with former Billings Republican Representative Dan Kennedy. It’s the second blow to ATP this week, after a federal judge threw out a lawsuit from ATP associates.

The ruling from the Commissioner of Political Practices goes back to 2010--a primary race between two Republican candidates in Billings, Dan Kennedy and Debra Bonogofsky.

“I had walked mostly the whole district at one time in the primary and knocking on doors and talking to people,” Bonogofsky said.

That was her campaign strategy. Documents from the political practices office state that Kennedy decided to focus most of his campaign efforts on advertising and direct mail, many of the ads attacking Bonogofsky.

She lost by about 250 votes. She looked into Kennedy’s campaign records and found he had used a company called Direct Mail and Communications for some of his advertising. Direct Mail is a Colorado-based for profit printing company associated with non-profit American Tradition Partnership, or ATP.

“How do you get ahold of direct mail and communications? They have no phone number, they aren’t in the phone book, they aren’t in the yellow pages,” Bonogofsky said.

She filed a complaint and now, years later, Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl has issued his decision saying there was illegal coordination between Dan Kennedy and ATP.

“The candidate reported a portion of the documents but did not report any of the production costs—not the writing of the document, the handling,” he said.

He said those costs have been determined election expenses and since they were not listed, it was then determined Direct Mail and Communications gave those services to Kennedy.

“And because a corporate entity was involved,” he said, “that’s an illegal election expense since a corporation can’t contribute to a candidate in Montana.”

Evidence of coordination between Kennedy and ATP was also found in boxes of documents delivered to the Political Practices office from Colorado. ATP Consultant Christian Lefer claims the documents were stolen out of his wife’s car in Denver. The Lefer’s also operated Direct Mail and Communications.

They sued the Commissioner of Political Practices office for having the documents and giving them to the press. They have since been seized in a federal grand jury investigation. But, District Judge Donald Molloy threw out that lawsuit this week, saying the Commissioner complied with the law.

The Lefer’s lawyer, Quentin Rhoades said they have appealed the decision to the 9th circuit court of appeals.

Back to the Commissioner of Political Practices decisions. Commissioner Motl issued five decisions from Debra Bonogofsky’s complaint against Dan Kennedy and four corporations: ATP, Assembly Action Fund, Montana Citizens for Right to Work, and the National Gun owners alliance.

Motl said the investigation from Bonogofsky’s complaint is now expanding to include all candidates who similarly worked with ATP in 2010. Motl's decision also criticizes Campaign Treasurer Corey Stapleton of Billings for failing to keep required records. Stapleton, now running for the U.S. House seat, said in an e-mail that he only agreed to be the treasurer if Kennedy delegated the administrative tasks to a deputy.

Motl cautions candidates running for statewide election in 2014.

“You should be very careful in how you affiliate and associate with corporations, be they for profit or not for profit,” he said.

Neither Kennedy nor his lawyer returned calls seeking comment Wednesday, but Kennedy has previously denied any wrongdoing.

Motl says Kennedy has the option of working out a deal with the Commissioner’s office to pay the financial penalty for the infractions. Or, Kennedy can take the issue to court.