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Dark Money Group's Bank Records Suggest Ties to Campaign Work

Bank records released Friday by aMontana district court judge show that the wife of a key player for WesternTradition Partnership signed many of the group's checks. She runs a companythat did work for candidates.

Bank documents for a controversial conservative social welfare nonprofit released Friday by Montana officials contradict assertions by a former top official of the group.

The records show Allison LeFer signed many of the checks paid out by Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP, from April 2008 to October 2010.

LeFer also operates a printing business that did work for political candidates, but her husband, Christian LeFer, a key player in WTP between 2008 and 2010, has maintained that the couple kept her work and his strictly separate.

The bank records appear to contradict this, however, indicating Allison LeFer was involved with WTP. Separate records from candidates show they paid her printing company for work.

Outside groups like WTP are not allowed to coordinate with candidates, largely because contributions to candidates are subject to strict limits. Outside groups can take unlimited amounts of money.

Attempts to get a hold of Christian and Allison LeFer were unsuccessful Friday night.

Earlier this week, in response to questions about other documents that had surfaced on the group’s activities, Christian LeFer said, “Both my wife and I have scrupulously endeavored to avoid any possibility of illegal coordination.”

ProPublica and Frontline have written extensively about how boxes of documents found in a meth house in Colorado and sent to Montana authorities pointed toward possible coordination between candidates and outside spending groups, including WTP. The group was a focus of a Frontline film broadcast earlier this week.

The boxes contained files for 23 candidates for state office in Montana. They also held fliers and questionnaires from outside spending groups. One group, WTP, seemed to be pulling the strings, working with campaigns on strategy and surveys.

Although small, WTP has won national attention for its attempts to fight campaign-finance restrictions. Its lawsuit overturned Montana's ban on corporate spending in elections, extending the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to all states.

The group also has been engaged in a long-running dispute with Montana campaign-finance regulators. It has sued Montana over its ruling two years ago that WTP was acting as a political committee and should have to report its donors. That lawsuit will be heard in March.

Documents available for WTP, now known as the American Tradition Partnership, provide a rare look into the inner workings of a so-called dark money group. These tax-exempt organizations can accept unlimited contributions and do not have to disclose their donors. ProPublica has written extensively about such groups, which are playing a growing role in federal and state elections.

In addition to the documents found in the meth house in Colorado, in early 2010, Montana regulators also were provided with others by a woman who briefly worked at WTP.  

Now Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock has ordered the release of hundreds of pages of account transactions and copies of checks to consultants and vendors in Montana, Colorado and near Washington, D.C.

The records showed that checks written on WTP’s account and signed by Allison LeFer went to gun shows, for legal work and to LeFer’s printing company. She also signed a check for the group’s largest expenditure, a one-time transfer on Nov. 23, 2010, for $40,000 to “WTI.” This could refer to the Western Tradition Institute, the sister charity of WTP.

WTP had sought a protective injunction against the records’ release, sought by Frontline and ProPublica. Sherlock wrote in his ruling that there is a “substantial relation between disclosure of this financial information and Montana’s stated constitutional interest in its citizen’s right to know.”

Montana officials released some of the bank information late Friday and will release the remainder after redacting account information.

On its website, American Tradition Partnership, formerly WTP, describes itself as a grassroots lobbying organization fighting against radical environmentalists. It says it hasn’t engaged in politics or advocated for or against the election of candidates. Instead, it says it simply educates voters on how candidates stand on issues.

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