Montana, WTP, and the Supreme Court: A Tale of Irony – Part 1

by Kellye

This blog is about big money in politics and the corruption that follows it. Citizens for Truth was started as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. This ruling effectively removed limits on the amount of money corporations and unions can spend in elections. The only requirement is that the expenditures must be independent of the candidate’s own campaign — there can be no coordination or other collaboration between the candidate or political party and the outside group.

Since that decision, the number of outside groups has increased exponentially. Each election seems to involve more money than the one before it. National elections, but also state and local, are heavily influenced by big money donors. It is often the case that big money donors in state and local elections don’t even live in the state, let alone the local areas. As a result, outside groups, along with their corporate and out-of-state donors, are calling the shots in state and local elections, not the people who actually live there. The two primary types of big money outside groups are SuperPACS and 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations (for more information see these posts: 501(c)4sPACs, SuperPACS, 501(c)4s).

The key difference between these two groups is disclosure. SuperPACs are required to disclose donations, while 501(c)4s are not. The latter is often referred to as “dark money.”

Let’s switch gears for a moment and discuss Montana’s importance in campaign finance. Montana is a state that has fought to keep big money out of their politics for over 100 years. In fact, a 1899 scandal involving a Montana U.S. senate seat played a role in the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (U.S. senators would be elected by a state’s popular vote, not by appointment by its state legislature). Montana copper baron William Clark had bribed Montana state legislators in order to gain appointment to his senate seat.

Copper mining corporations and the copper barons who ran them had controlled Montana’s government and politics to support their own business interests for years. In 1906, citizens of Montana amended their state constitution so that initiatives could be placed on the ballot for a vote. Finally, the citizens of Montana were able to stop the chain of corruption by passing the Corrupt Practices Act by ballot initiative in 1912. The law prohibited corporate expenditures in state elections. After the Citizens United decision, Montana’s law appeared to be no longer valid. However, the state didn’t go down without a fight.

In 2010, a whistleblower reported that Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. (WTP), a 501(c)4 group, had violated state campaign finance laws. Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices investigated the group. WTP had been incorporated in 2008 and garnered interest very quickly because it employed two politicians: then-State Representative John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, and former U.S. Congressman Ron Marlenee. Commissioner of Political Practices Unsworth found evidence that, because WTP was targeting specific candidates and conducting express advocacy rather than limiting itself to issue ads, it was not a true 501(c)4 organization. Therefore, it was required by the state’s campaign finance laws to register as a political action committee and to disclose its corporate donors. Otherwise, according to Unsworth, it “raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process and clearly justifies an action seeking a civil penalty.”

WTP disputed this ruling and sued to strike down Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act. The Montana Supreme Court noted that WTP was contesting both contribution restrictions and the disclosure requirements that were intended to produce transparency. In fact, materials given to prospective donors by WTP stated explicitly that there were no limits to the amount a person or corporation could give and that donations would never be disclosed. The majority opinion stated that Montana and its citizens had a compelling interest to impose restrictions on corporate expenditures, and Montana won the case in its Supreme Court on December 30, 2011.

It wasn’t over yet, however.

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One response to “Montana, WTP, and the Supreme Court: A Tale of Irony – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Montana, WTP, and the Supreme Court: A Tale of Irony — Part 2 | citizens for truth

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