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Dark Money Operative Sees Hope for Meth House Documents Go Up in Smoke

In a sharply worded ruling, a federal judge in Montana ruled 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, they’ll remain with a grand jury.

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In a sharply worded ruling, a federal judge in Montana ruled 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. (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)

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.

Christian LeFer hasn’t yet responded to an email asking about the Tuesday ruling.

Meanwhile, because you rarely see a federal court ruling replete with descriptions like “Groundhog Day litigation,” “the ship of litigation” and “the curate’s egg,” we decided to compile our Top 12 list of quotes from the judge’s order.

1. “...the Lefers’ Complaint presents [sic] fanciful screed replete with distorted accusations implying and attributing bias and nefarious motive on the part of the Commissioner....This politicized rhetoric has no place in proper pleading and appears to serve but one purpose: it grabbed headlines.”

2. “The pleadings evidence the Plaintiffs’ belief that the end justifies the means, a principle that has no safe harbor in the rule of law.”

3. “In January 2013....the LeFers served the Commissioner with a Motion seeking to hold the Commissioner in contempt. This Motion was never filed with the state district court or with this Court...It served as political theater rather than legitimate legal practice.”

4. “Groundhog Day litigation, repeating the same case over and over again, amounts to little more than harassment.”

5. “There was a time for LeFers to abandon the ship of litigation. They did not timely use the Rule 41(a)(1)(B) lifeboat, so now their case sinks and they, like captains, sink with it.”

6. “Transparency is a (Montana) constitutional requirement because it is crucial to an informed electorate.”

7. “The LeFers’ insistence that the Colorado Documents are private property holds no water.”

8. “Nothing in the record shows he (the commissioner) did not act in good faith or that he acted with malice or corruption.”

9. “Furthermore, as this matter stands today, there is no means by which the Colorado Documents may be delivered to the LeFers, as they are in possession of a federal grand jury.”

10. “The LeFers’ claims repeatedly impute illicit conduct to the Commissioner and his office without a hint of proof or any factual support. As discussed earlier, this lawsuit began couched in nasty and unprofessional rhetoric, and continued with hyperbole.”

11. “When the Complaint was filed, and continuously throughout this litigation, the LeFers advanced their case without factual or legal foundation. Their litigation tactics were not only unreasonable; they reflect a sad view of the democratic process and the rule of law.”

12. “The Complaint is not even like the curate’s egg.”

Another excellent article by Kim Barker!

I am somewhat leery that this entire fiasco just might be mfg’ed by those who wish to do away with so called ‘dark money’ and perhaps one more nail in to coffin to bury the GOP.

Here is the line I don’t understand:  “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.”  How did journalists get hold of evidence in a legal case?

Adam, happy to explain. A man who found the documents in the meth house contacted a Colorado lawyer, who sent them to the Montana election authorities in March 2011. At that point, the documents were considered public under Montana law. (Montana has a fairly strong public-records law, compared with some states.) Frontline started looking at the documents in early 2012. After we published our stories in October 2012, a legal battle ensued over the documents, and the commissioner of political practices sealed public access to them until their ownership was determined. Then, in December 2012, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the documents. It still has them. Here’s the first story we did: http://www.propublica.org/article/documents-found-in-meth-house-bare-inner-workings-of-dark-money-group. Also, if you read the judge’s order, it outlines the history of the case. Thanks for reading.

Julieann Wozniak

Oct. 16, 2013, 6:09 p.m.

I always suspected the TPers were smoking crack. How else could folks be so sociopathic and so stupid, all at the same time? Now….evidence!

The Lefers could have avoided all of these legal problems if their documents were not seized in the Colorado meth house. Personally, I wonder how the documents came to be in a place of ongoing criminal activity. The Lefers’ legal recourses to prevent the documents from being thoroughly investigated were limited. The documents and papers could not be ignored if they suggested some crime might have been committed. The Lefers will pay a price for engaging in frivolous litigation. It is possible that the grand jury will conclude its business without issuing any indictments against the Lefers, notwithstanding the judge’s criticism of their tactics. So called “dark money” is a part of the political landscape, and both main political parties have used it.

Does Propublica believe that the other party is lilly white?  How about being fair to the American people and investigate the other side too!!!!

Prediction: this case will turn out to have been precedent-bait.

pgillenw and Marie, whoever it takes down, it’ll be worth it.  Through dark money, millionaires, corporations, unions, foreigners, even foreign governments—heck, even the meth lab!—can plausibly donate enormous amounts of money to political campaigns without anybody knowing who’s pulling the strings.

While I believe legitimate (not necessarily merely legal) human donors have a right to their privacy, I don’t believe the candidates should have any such rights.  The people should know if their favorite candidate of either party managed to fund a commercial because Kim Jong-Un donated a few million.

Marie, we have looked at liberals using dark money as well. In fact, this story in Montana focused on liberal groups: http://www.propublica.org/article/in-montana-dark-money-helped-democrats-hold-a-key-senate-seat
I have included examples of liberal groups engaging in this behavior whenever we find it, wherever we find it. The fact is, though, that conservative dark money groups on the federal level account for about 85 percent of the anonymous spending. I’m open to any and all story ideas, as long as they are specific. If there’s any story out there that you think we should do, by all means, shoot me an email. Thanks for reading.

It is not truth that matters, but victory.
Adolf Hitler