Journalism in the Public Interest

Documents Found in Meth House Bare Inner Workings of Dark Money Group

Boxes of records turned over to Montana authorities show that a top person from Western Tradition Partnership interacted with candidates and helped shape their election efforts, possibly violating laws that bar coordination between campaigns and outside groups.


(Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)

This post was co-published with PBS' Frontline.

The boxes landed in the office of Montana investigators in March 2011.

Found in a meth house in Colorado, they were somewhat of a mystery, holding files on 23 conservative candidates in state races in Montana. They were filled with candidate surveys and mailers that said they were paid for by campaigns, and fliers and bank records from outside spending groups. One folder was labeled "Montana $ Bomb."

The documents pointed to one outside group pulling the candidates' strings: a social welfare nonprofit called Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP.

Altogether, the records added up to possible illegal "coordination" between the nonprofit and candidates for office in 2008 and 2010, said a Montana investigator and a former Federal Election Commission chairman who reviewed the material. Outside groups are allowed to spend money on political campaigns, but not to coordinate with candidates.

"My opinion, for what it's worth, is that WTP was running a lot of these campaigns," said investigator Julie Steab of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, who initially received the boxes from Colorado.

The boxes were examined by Frontline and ProPublica as part of an investigation into the growing influence on elections of dark money groups, tax-exempt organizations that can accept unlimited contributions and do not have to identify their donors. The documents offer a rare glimpse into the world of dark money, showing how Western Tradition Partnership appealed to donors, interacted with candidates and helped shape their election efforts.

Though WTP's spending has been at the state level, it's best-known nationally for bringing a lawsuit that successfully challenged Montana's ban on corporate spending in elections, extending the provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United decision to all states.

The tax code allows nonprofits like WTP to engage in some political activity, but they are supposed to have social welfare as their primary purpose. As reported previously by ProPublica and Frontline, when WTP applied for recognition of its tax-exempt status, it told the IRS under penalty of perjury that it would not directly or indirectly attempt to influence elections — even though it already had.

The group is now locked in an ongoing dispute with Montana authorities, who ruled in October 2010 that the nonprofit should have registered as a political committee and should have to disclose its donors. WTP sued. A hearing is set for March.

In the meantime, the group has changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, reflecting its larger ambitions. This month, it sent Montana voters a mailer in the form of a newspaper called the Montana Statesman that claimed to be the state's "largest & most trusted news source."

The front page accused the Democratic gubernatorial candidate of being soft on sex offenders.

Donny Ferguson, American Tradition Partnership's spokesman and executive director, did not specifically address the documents found in Colorado or allegations of coordination made against WTP.

"American Tradition Partnership always obeys every letter of every applicable law," he wrote in an emailed response to questions. "ATP does not, and never will, endorse candidates or urge voters to vote for or against candidates. ... These false allegations are old hat."

On its website, the group says its primary purpose is issue advocacy and combating radical environmentalists, whom it sometimes calls "gang green." It describes itself as a grassroots group backed by a broad membership of small donors.

When asked about the documents found in Colorado, Jim Brown, a lawyer for the group, said he was unfamiliar with them.

After being shown some of the documents by Frontline, Brown, in a follow-up email, said his review indicated that they appeared to belong to a company called Direct Mail. Direct Mail and Communications is a print shop in Livingston, Mont., run by a one-time key player in WTP and his wife.

Brown urged Frontline to turn over the documents. "If the documents are purported to be what you say they are, then you may knowingly be in possession of stolen property," Brown wrote.

The records are in the hands of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, which considers them public and reviewable upon request.

* * *

In the anything-goes world of modern campaign finance, outside groups face one major restriction: They are not allowed to coordinate with candidates. That's because contributions to candidates and parties are still capped to limit donors' direct influence, while contributions to outside groups are unlimited.

The Federal Election Commission has a three-pronged test for proving coordination: Did an outside group pay for ads, phone calls or mailers? Did these materials tell people to vote for or against a candidate, or praise or criticize a candidate in the weeks before an election? Finally, did the candidate, or a representative, agree to the expenditure?

Many concerns have been raised about coordination in this election because of close ties between outside groups and campaigns. Super PACs supporting President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney are run by their former staffers. Super PACs and campaigns have used the same consultants, who insist in interviews that they have firewalls.

Proving coordination is extremely difficult, however. Since 2007, the FEC has investigated 64 complaints of coordination, but found against candidates and groups only three times, fining them a total of $107,000, a review of FEC enforcement actions shows.

Montana, which has similar rules, also receives few complaints about such activity, Steab said.

The boxes from Colorado contained a mixture of documents from candidates and outside groups.

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.

Several folders included copies of the signatures of candidates and their wives. "Use this one," someone wrote in red pen next to a cut-out rectangle on a page with five signatures from one candidate.

Steab, the Montana investigator, said she believed these cut-out signatures were then affixed to fliers from the candidates.

Besides material from the campaigns, the boxes also contained mailers on 2008 and 2010 races in Colorado and Montana from Western Tradition Partnership and six other groups. There were bank statements for several groups, including the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, the Alliance of Montana Taxpayers and the Conservative Victory Fund.

In all the documents, one name repeatedly popped up: Christian LeFer. Even though two Montana Republican politicians founded WTP, investigators determined that LeFer was the man behind the scenes.

LeFer, who is described as WTP's director of strategic programming in memos in 2009, said in an email that the documents "appear to be stolen property" and that, as he'd had no access to them, he couldn't respond to most of ProPublica's questions, "which seem to be based on an erroneous and fanciful interpretation of what they mean."

LeFer did not address whether WTP had coordinated with candidates. Although former employees and candidates said LeFer helped his wife run Direct Mail and Communications — the printing company that Brown, the lawyer, suggested was the owner of the boxes of documents found in Colorado — LeFer said he did not "run or direct the activities" there.

Direct Mail listed its principal office address in Montana filings as being the same Colorado address WTP initially used.

Two outside groups with documents in the boxes — the Montana Committee to Protect the Unborn and Montana Citizens for Right to Work — listed their addresses on bank statements as the same post-office box in Livingston used by LeFer and Direct Mail. LeFer was also the executive director of Montana Citizens for Right to Work, an anti-union group.

Former state Rep. Ed Butcher said LeFer and Western Tradition Partnership aided candidates with no experience.

"They'll come in, if candidates want some help, they'll come in and help them," said Butcher, who described LeFer as "a Karl Rove type political strategist" who "stays in the background."

Butcher's file in the Colorado boxes was labeled "Butcher Primary '08 mail samples." It included an email from LeFer to Butcher with a survey about unions. There was a campaign donation form, and drafts of fliers and a letter from Butcher's campaign.

A "wife questionnaire" for Butcher's wife Pam said she met her husband "on a blind date arranged by his buddy that neither of us wanted." The questionnaire listed her children's names and that she had been taking care of her disabled mother for five years.

A letter on pink paper from Pam Butcher was in a file marked "wife letters." The letter, which contained much of the information in the questionnaire, was marked as being paid for by Butcher's campaign.

Butcher said his wife might have run her letter past LeFer. "He may have asked, 'Do you need any help?' and she said, 'Yeah, I need to get this family letter out,'" said Butcher, who won the Republican primary in 2008 by 20 votes.

A folder for another successful candidate, Mike Miller, included a fax cover sheet from Miller to LeFer, forwarding Miller's filled-out Montana candidate surveys for two outside groups, the National Gun Owners Alliance and the National League of Taxpayers. It also held a candidate survey asking Miller if he had any research about his opponent, including "any recent scandals."

Miller confirmed to Frontline that LeFer was an unpaid adviser on his campaign, but would not elaborate further.

Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner who now runs the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that advocates for more restrictions on money in politics, reviewed the documents found in the boxes.

"This is the sort of information that is, in fact, campaign strategy, campaign plans that candidates cannot share with an outside group without making it coordinated," Potter said.

"You need to know more, but certainly if I were back in my FEC days as a commissioner, I would say we had grounds to proceed with an investigation and put people under oath and show them these documents, and ask where they came from and where they were."

* * *

After the 2008 election, Montana started investigating whether WTP should have disclosed its donors.

The inquiry progressed slowly until 2010, when a former WTP contractor handed over internal fundraising records, saying she was worried about what the group was doing.

The documents showed that the group raised money specifically by telling people and corporations that they could give unlimited amounts in secret.

"The only thing we plan on reporting is our success to contributors like you who can see the benefits of a program like this," said one document, a 2010 election briefing to read to potential donors. "You can just sit back on election night and see what a difference you've made."

A target list of potential donors included an executive at a talc mine, the Montana representative of an international mining group and a Colorado executive for a global gold-mining company.

One note about a potential donor advised: "Married rich, hard to get a hold of. Have a beer with him." Another said: "Owns big ranch, signed a hit piece I wrote on cty cmms'r last year (don't mention), should give $$ $10,000 ask."

Other notes suggested that solicitors "See Christian" or "Talk to Christian," apparently references to LeFer.

The documents cited the group's success in 2008, saying in a confidential grassroots membership development proposal that 28 Montana state legislators "rode into office in 100% support of WTP's responsible development agenda."

By 2010, the partnership was active in state races in Montana and Colorado.

That October, Montana authorities said Western Tradition Partnership had violated campaign-finance law and should be fined. They said the group's purpose in 2008 was "not to discuss issues, but to directly influence candidate elections through surreptitious means."

The Montana investigation also said the evidence was overwhelming that WTP had established the Coalition for Energy and the Environment, known as CEE, as a "sham organization" to act as a front for expenditures actually made by WTP.

But the investigation also found that "sufficient evidence has not been disclosed to establish coordination between WTP/CEE and any candidate. Concern and healthy skepticism is warranted, however."

That was before the boxes from Colorado turned up.

A convicted felon named Mark Seibel said he stumbled on them inside a known meth house near Denver at some point in late 2010.

It's not clear how they got there. Seibel said a friend found them in a stolen car. After reading through some of the documents, he reached out to people he thought might be interested in them — primarily Colorado candidates attacked by Western Tradition Partnership. A lawyer married to one of the candidates shipped the boxes off to Montana investigators.

By that time, however, the Montana probe into the group's activities in the 2008 election was over. Steab also said that there was no way to determine for certain where the documents were from and who owned them. There was no whistleblower, and no information about how the records ended up in Colorado.

Despite this, Steab said, she found the documents very telling.

"It looks to me that there was a lot of coordination — but I don't know that it's coordination that everyone is aware of in all cases," she said. She said she spoke to one candidate who told her he was upset about all the negative mailers against his opponent.

This year, American Tradition Partnership is as active as ever. It's suing to try to overturn contribution limits in Montana, so far unsuccessfully. The group sent out mailers attacking candidates before the June primary in Montana, reporting none of them to the state as political expenditures. It later put out a press release saying that 12 of the 14 candidates it backed had won.

For the general election, the group appears to be targeting Montana's attorney general, Steve Bullock, the Democratic candidate for governor. As attorney general, Bullock fought the partnership's lawsuits against the state, including the one that ended up in the Supreme Court.

The first issue of the partnership's Montana Statesman newspaper, dated Oct. 7, which a group press release said was sent to 180,000 voters, featured four photographs on the front page: Three of registered sex offenders, and one of Bullock, accusing him of allowing one in four sex offenders to go unregistered. "Bullock admits failure," the headline announced. A full-page ad accused Bullock of taking illegal corporate contributions and of "criminal hypocrisy."

The Statesman's editor and publisher is none other than Ferguson, the partnership's executive director, described as an "award-winning newspaper veteran" who has been "commended by other newspapers for his 'honest, intelligent and issue-oriented' approach."

Ferguson didn't respond to a question about his journalism credentials.

"Conservative group American Tradition Partnership now one of nation's biggest media outlets," said a press release on the group's website, adding that the newspaper would publish "several" editions through Election Day and into 2013.

Great investigative journalism.  My only qualm with the above piece is this statement “A convicted felon named Mark Siebel said he stumbled on them inside a known meth house near Denver at some point in late 2010.” Is Mr. Siebel’s prior criminal record relevant to the story? Why broadcast this and bring the man’s reputation under scrutiny and ridicule? Although he has apparently made some mistakes, he ultimately saw these suspicious documents in a peculiar location, saw the potential for widespread corruption, and brought them to light giving journalists the biggest lead they have in this investigation. So why tarnish the man further? Have a little respect for your sources. I hazard to guess most people in the depths of chemical dependency wouldn’t have blinked an eye at those documents much less brought them to the attention of politicians and officials.

Raises the hairs on my neck! A real halloween story. Look at the extent of “targetting”: WTP targets “potential donors”, profiles them for pumping money out of them. Siebel “finds” these boxes goes through them and does 2+2 and “targets” the victims mentioned in the boxes (again for possible payoffs).

Meanwhile, FEC bureaucrats (credit to Montana investigation that was prematurely ended though) parse legal hairs about “coordination”?! Coordination? aka Racketeering? I mean, you can almost smell extortion in all the “targetting”, no?

And to think….this is at the “small” state level!! Imagine what happens higher up!!!

Halloween is not this bad. Sick.

It appears to me that this article completely ignores one of the most explosive implications… not only is it plain that these right wing front groups are coordinating with political campaigns, but the fact these documents were taken from a meth house raises the possibility or probability that profits from the meth trade are being funneled to these groups. This wouldn’t surprise me in the least….

Glad someone noted the “meth house” reference in the headline. When I read further for expansion on that point, I could not find any information on who, what, etc. etc.

Stuart makes a good point. Ironic that extreme right-wingers would be engaged in activities that they like to attribute to any and all of their “enemies” to the middle and left of them.

If you read the story carefully you’ll find that the WTP documents found in the meth house were allegedly acquired from a stolen car. So the presumable chain of custody of the documents is: WTP -> Car Thief -> Meth House -> Mr Seibel -> Authorities. Given that it is too early to draw connections between WTP funding and profits from drug trafficking.
Thus, the title is a bit more flashy than it should be as it does imply the connection between WTP and meth.

Peter Snowden

Oct. 29, 2012, 3:20 p.m.

Another great piece of investigative work by Pro Publica.  This is another example of the damage being done by the Supreme Court sanctioned bribery.  This is another example of how “brilliant” legal scholars have devised twisted elaborate schemes to supposedly protect free speech at the cost of our democracy.  I am a registered republican and proudly voted for, gave money to, and phone bank volunteered, for Obama in ‘08, primarily because he said he would do something about getting rid of the big money (both corporate and union) lobbyist bribery system.

Obama had the best chance of dismantling the power of big money having raised a campaign war chest equal to McCain’s largely with small contributions. He blew that off after about 2 months in office succumbing to the power of big contributions. 

All campaign finance is within the legal definition of bribery—something of value given to a public official with the expectation of influence on a vote.  The only issue should be at what dollar amount do we consider the influence to be so small, the contribution on its own will have no practical influence.  $100 has been suggested.  Any attempt to bundle or package contributions should be severely punished. 

This will require a complete flip by the Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment.  The Supreme Court clearly values the “beauty” of their elaborately constructed ineffective definitions over the real world destruction of our institutions by bribery.  A supreme court reversal here is not likely, so the charge is to get support for a constitutional amendment. seems to be the most likely source for bringing this together.  I say this knowing that unPAC is mostly operated and funded by liberals (kinda reminds you of ProPublica, huh) because they understand to remove the rot of big money, you have to remove all of it no matter who brings it.

Stephanie Palmer

Oct. 29, 2012, 3:31 p.m.

I really don’t think that there is an actual depth to how far these anonymous donors would go to get what they want. It’s not enough for them to own 40% of the wealth in this country. And they’re willing to totally destroy it if it makes them money. How the population can’t see it is beyond belief.  These are purely evil “Americans.” And people fall for their lies every single time. Why can’t people use the ability to reason?

It may have been coordination, and therefore illegal, but raising money from potential contributors is perfectly legitimate and done by left and right. 

From a legal standpoint I would think that the evidence it at least slightly tainted.  Not to say it is not legitimate, but if I were an attorney defending against these documents I’d certainly suggest that the incriminating stuff had been seeded into a batch of legitimate documents.  I would bet that 99% is boring, unimportant stuff. It would certainly be possible for someone to thrown in a few items that would suggest that something illegal was done.

Of course it should at least get law enforcement enough to requests warrants where something more convicting might be found.

Interesting collab with Frontline but definitely not enough convincing info regarding the origin of how the documents were found and revealed.

what the hell is going on out there, is this back to the robber barons era? Or worse.

What’s really suspicious here is why, in the face of so many real and proven violations of campaign laws and unethical practices, Frontline is bringing us - on the eve of the election - a Pure Partisan Pro-Left Mystery. 
We have a Democratic campaign chair and son of a US Senator on tape giving advice on how to vote illegally enmasse’.  And the continuing story of the Obama campaign collecting 10s of millions of dollars via unverified, untraceable online credit card contributions that are strangely enough just pennies below the mandatory reporting level. 
Such cliche’ behavior in reporting from such a cliche’ of a progressive advocacy group.  Presenting opinions and comments from partisans, supported by convicted criminals’ mysteriously “discovered evidence” is nothing more than campaigning by other means.  Repulsive and tiresome pretense of “news” that should be an embarrassment to PBS and Propublica - but is not.

@michael: come on, do you think anyone is swayed by Frontline? If you ,in fact, believe that its the liberal outlet you contend it is, do you really think that minds are being swayed or that beliefs are simply reinforced. Also, do cite your sources for your dubious contentions of voter fraud and campaign donations. Essentially what your mentality amounts to is that as long as someone else will lower themselves to the task its acceptable for all: they did it too! I thought conservatives championed a role of individualism and leadership, not herd followers like those socialist EU embracing liberals. What’s really left if the primary axiom is “its OK to do if someone else would do it and it gets you the win?” Why even have a discussion?

When will we DROP this “liberal” / “conservative” NONSENSE? Obama (aka Showbama) is as much an avtar of GWBush as can be already…“the system” has no need for change then..  Likewise, The system can bend our preferences at will, like an NBA ref can “Shave points” as needed.  Everything runs to “Game 7”...everyone cheers.  We can be scared by carefully chosen media exposes of what the far right has planned…scared into voting for the establishment choice anyway! How ironic! but it works! Wake up please.

Great…we have a 2 (TWO) party system: if it were ONE party we couldn’t boast of being a Demockracy in G*d’s image so we have a TWO party system and this qualifies as freedom to do as we please in foreign policy and whatnot. But really…who are we kidding here? It’s all rubbish.

Benjamin Franklin

Oct. 30, 2012, 6:33 p.m.

How does the fact that these damning documents were found in a ‘meth-house’ become a throw away line?

For those who like the “two-party” system (one big money party) and for those who do not:

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

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