Last night, Frontline aired its half of the Pro Publica story about documents found in a meth house suggesting that American Traditions Partnership coordinated with the Republican Party. ATP has been particularly active in Montana, suing to force the state to comply with Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 and, now, pursing a suit to overturn campaign contribution limits. ATP does not have to disclose its donors to the FEC, because ATP is not a political organization. As they helpfully explain in their press release, they’re a grassroots education nonprofit. One of their educational publications, for example, is the Montana Statesman, a website that just happens to run only articles about how awful various Democratic candidates are. The Statesman bills itself as “Montana’s oldest and most trusted news source.”
Here’s their educational report entitled “Bullock admits failure: 1 in 4 sex offenders go unregistered.” There are four photographs below the headline: three of convicted sex offenders, and one of Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. Bullock is the Democratic candidate for governor; he is running against Republican Rick Hill, whose campaign received a mysterious $500,000 donation during the six days when ATP was briefly successful in suspending Montana’s contribution limits.
That money probably didn’t come from ATP, because ATP is not coordinating with Hill’s campaign. It’s a coincidence, just like it’s a coincidence that James Bopp, ATP’s attorney in the suit against Montana election officials, also filed suit to stop Steve Bullock from publicly demanding that Hill give the money back.
ATP is what reporters call a “dark money” group—a catchall term for political nonprofits that don’t report to the FEC because they don’t endorse candidates or urge people to vote against them. Also, the head shop sells bongs for legal tobacco use. ATP is obviously a Republican advocacy group; nine of the 11 stories on the Montana Statesman attack Democratic candidates by name, and the other two are “Working families facing rising child care costs” and “ATP responds to Frontline’s false claims.”
The same server that hosts the Statesman also hosts ATP’s website, another fake newspaper, and the campaign websites of Republican State House candidates Jerry O’Neil and Dan Skattum. But ATP is not coordinating with those campaigns; that would violate the very law ATP has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to overturn. And as spokesman Donny Ferguson says, ATP is all about the law:
American Tradition Partnership always obeys every letter of every applicable law. ATP does not, and never will, endorse candidates or urge voters to vote for or against candidates…These false allegations are old hat.
American Traditions Partnership does not urge voters to vote against candidates, the same way putting a picture of the attorney general next to three pictures of sex offenders under the phrase “1 in 4 sex offenders” does not say that he is a sex offender. Here is where the phrase “the letter of the law” becomes deeply cynical.
Citizens United v. FEC allowed advocacy groups to spend unlimited money on political advertisements as long as they do not coordinate with campaigns. But what is coordination? Is it sharing an office? Sharing a web server? Sharing a lawyer? Is it attacking Democratic candidates across the board while filing amicus briefs on behalf of Republicans? Or is it what police found in a box in a meth house in Denver:
Folders labeled with the names of Montana candidates held drafts and final letters of support signed by candidates’ wives and drafts and final copies of mailers marked as being paid for by the campaigns. The folders often appeared to have had an accounting of what had been sent and paid for scrawled on the front.
That’s damning evidence, but it’s hardly a revelation. Any reasonable person would say that ATP advocates for Republican candidates, based solely on the press releases and quote-unquote stories and advertisements they produce. You don’t have to see the accounting paperwork to recognize that all of ATP’s educational outreach invariably serves one party’s interests, just as you don’t need to coordinate with a candidate for office to guess what his interests are. His interest is attacking the other guy.
When the letter of the becomes so obviously disjointed from its spirit, you have a bad law. Whatever its virtuous intentions, Citizens United v. FEC has become an occasion for abuse. In the last two years, that abuse has poured forth such a revolting surge of mendacity as to make organizations like ATP grimly unsurprising. They shouldn’t be. We should hate ATP, a corrupt money pump dedicated to opening the valves on more corrupt money pumps in the future. We should hate Donny Ferguson, a smirking liar who appeals to the same laws he is trying to undo. We should shout these people down at every opportunity, because for the time being, the law will not do it for us.