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Monday, December 5, 2016

by Kim Barker, ProPublica.

In a sharply worded ruling, a federal judge in Montana said Tuesday that documents found inside a Colorado meth house pointing to possible election law violations will not be returned to the couple claiming the papers were stolen from one of their cars.

Instead, the thousands of pages will remain where they are — with a federal grand jury in Montana, investigating the dark money group American Tradition Partnership, once known as Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP.

The documents, detailed last fall in a Frontline documentary and ProPublica coverage, point to possible illegal coordination between candidates and WTP, which since 2008 has worked to replace moderate Republicans with more conservative candidates in both Montana and Colorado. The documents, including a folder labeled “Montana $ Bomb,” provided the first real glimpse inside a dark money group. Such so-called social welfare nonprofits, which have poured more than $350 million into federal election ads in recent years, don’t have to disclose their donors.

Conservative political consultant Christian LeFer, a former WTP official, and his wife, Allison LeFer, who helped run the couple’s printing shop, sued Montana’s former Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry and the state of Montana to recover the documents.

On Tuesday, the LeFers lost in almost every way possible. They didn’t get their documents. They didn’t get any money; instead, they’ll have to pay Murry’s fees, which haven’t yet been totaled. They won’t be able to file their complaint against Murry ever again.

And on every page of his ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy seemed to somehow insult them.

At one point in his 34-page ruling, Molloy referred to “the procedural morass caused by the LeFers’ posturing.” Since last fall, the LeFers have filed at least five separate complaints in different courts, sometimes with factual errors.

Molloy’s colorful order is a fitting coda for one of the strangest stories about how dark money groups have tried to influence elections.

Although WTP operated at the state level, it won national attention for its fight against campaign-finance restrictions. It sued successfully to overturn Montana’s ban on corporate spending in elections, which meant the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision applied to all states. WTP also fought with state regulators for more than two years over their ruling that the group was a political committee and should have to report its donors. (Last year, ProPublica and Frontline obtained the bank records of the group, the first time a dark money group’s donors have been made public.)

The mysterious boxes of documents, found in a meth house in Colorado, were sent to Montana investigators in March 2011, months after state investigators wrapped up their initial case. After Frontline obtained them in 2012, ProPublica and Frontline spent months investigating how Western Tradition Partnership and LeFer appealed to donors and worked with candidates to shape elections. Coordination between outside groups and candidates is not allowed.

The federal grand jury subpoenaed the documents last December, along with other documents relating to complaints against WTP. Grand jury proceedings are secret, so it’s not clear what is being investigated. But the judge’s order Tuesday indicates that the investigation involves more than just the Colorado documents. It’s also the first sign in months that the grand jury is still hearing evidence.

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