The Billings Outpost

Did dark money swing local legislative election?



In the Oct. 30 edition of The Billings Outpost, I mentioned that the Republican Party was leading with its chin on a fanciful quest to take over the federal lands within Montana’s borders, and I predicted that Tony O’Donnell would unseat Margie MacDonald in their legislative race.

No cigar. Tony lost by 13 votes. I did not figure the race would attract “independent third party money” let alone so called dark money (so named because its origin is not known to the public). Dark money groups are often associated with last-minute attacks that are impossible to respond to.

And so it was with the low level MacDonald vs. O’Donnell matchup. On Oct. 30, a few days before Election Day, The Montana League of Rural Voters sent out an attack piece against Tony O’Donnell. The piece clearly stated that O’Donnell thinks Montana taxpayers should pay $340 million per year in management costs associated with their hypothetical transfer of federal lands to Montana. The piece further hypothesized that Montana would have to sell off National Forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.

Who or what is the Montana League of Rural Voters? Tough telling. Several years ago a group with a similar name sent out political propaganda in rural areas for Democratic candidates. After the election, it was disclosed that the funding source was gay rights groups from back east. They campaigned on everything other than their core issue to get like-minded candidates elected.

More recently we saw the hunters and anglers Political Action Committee help defeat Denny Rehberg and elect Jon Tester to the U.S. Senate. After the campaign it was reported that the PAC had nothing to do with sportsmen’s groups but rather was a plethora of East Coast unions and traditional liberal groups. The name became a deceptive message. The MLRV appears to be cut from the same cloth.

All of the board members are members of, or associated with, the Northern Plains Resource Council. The address given for the MLRV is the address for the Northern Plains Resource Council. The fax number that sent in the campaign reports to the Commissioner of Political Practices is the fax number of the Northern Plains Resource Council.

All addresses of the board members of the MLRV given are the address of the NPRC even though the treasurer, Dena Hoff (NPRC) lives in Glendive and the chairman, Richard Parks (past president of NPRC), lives in Gardiner. And they both share the same home phone number with President Teresa Erickson (NPRC staff director) and Deputy Treasurer Paula Berg (comptroller for NPRC).

When asked how it was that the address for the Montana League of Rural Voters was the same as the Northern Plains Resource Council, Mr. Parks said that the MLRV paid rent to the NPRC. Schedule B of the C-6 form filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices lists the expenditures of the organization. Rent is not listed. Neither are phone bills or fax costs, or wages. I found zero financial or physical separation between the two organizations.

Their reported expenditures totaled more than $83,000. Their Statement of Organization stated they would support seven Democratic candidates and one initiative. They did financially support all. But then the MLRV chunked in $18,000 in phone calls for Mike Wheat for his Supreme Court race. This was not amended into their Statement of Organization.

All of the rural legislative candidates supported by the Rural Voters lost. The only two legislative victories for the League of Rural Voters were Virginia Court and Margie MacDonald, both of urban Billings.

So where did the $83,000 come from? I do not know and Parks isn’t saying. In both campaign reports filed with the Commissioner of Political Practices, the lines for “cash in bank,” “corrections” and “receipts” were left blank. Only the expenditures were properly reported.

During a phone interview I asked where the money came from. Parks said he would not give me any information he had not given the commissioner. I responded that he had not given any information to the commissioner. He said he would look into it.

In an emailed response, he said concerning his contributors, “We have neither an obligation nor an inclination to provide that information to you or anybody else.”

Au contraire. The League is well educated in political laws and requirements. They even hired attorneys to chime in on the Western Traditions Partnership case before the Supreme Court. So it can be assumed they know the reporting laws and that leaving a blank space is not the transparency required.

They listed many of their expenditures as “informational,” as did WTP. But many were listed as “in opposition.” Jim Brown, the attorney who has won many constitutional challenges to our incumbent protection laws, explained to me that once a mailer becomes an “express advocacy” by directly asking the reader to vote yes or no on the issue or candidate, the sender must declare the funding source. In the O’Donnell case, the mailer ended with “Vote No on Tony O’Donnell.”

I asked Richard Parks where he got the idea that O’Donnell purported the views credited to him in the brochure. He replied he did not know but that he would find out. He sent an email that said, “Let’s be clear about this – Tony O’Donnell repeatedly stated during the campaign that he was in favor of the state taking over federal lands so we have to assume that he did indeed ‘think’ that we should.” He then went on to offer various “logical conclusions” that could be drawn.

O’Donnell said that he never mentioned the federal lands transfer except to a voter who asked about it after reading an editorial on the issue. O’Donnell said he then assured the man he would look into it and sent him a copy of the Republican platform that said any federal lands so acquired would not be sold without the consent of the people. I asked Parks if he could be specific as to when O’Donnell had ever said anything like what had been attributed to him. I have yet to receive an answer.

I have been advised that these issues will probably become complaints before the Commissioner of Political Practices. Meanwhile, former Rep. Steve Gibson of Helena has filed a multi-faceted complaint claiming that when the MLRV sent out two attack mailers on him they misrepresented his voting record and stances on issues.

Several high profile cases are currently being litigated that claim collusion between “independent expenditures” and candidates claiming that perhaps they are not all that independent. These are hard to prove, but the appearance of impropriety is often the beginning of long and costly court battles.

In this case, Margie MacDonald works under Pat Sweeney for the Western Organization of Resource Councils, the umbrella group of groups like the Northern Plains Resource Council. Pat Sweeney is the Director of the WORC and senior adviser to the League of Rural Voters.   

Perhaps it’s just of interest to me, but Tony O’Donnell is a rock-solid conservative, so it is not amazing that he would be attacked by a political committee like the Montana League of Rural Voters. Steve Gibson was often counted with the “moderates” who voted to give victory to the Democratic minority in the Montana Legislature. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Brad Molnar is a former state legislator and former member of the Public Service Commission.


Last Updated on Thursday, 19 February 2015 13:32

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