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Judge fines “dark money” group more than $260,000

American Tradition Partnership, one of the primary “dark money” groups operating in Montana the past few elections, has been fined more than $260,000 for illegal campaign activity. This even as the group may be quietly dissolving.

“Here, we have what appears to be a deliberate attempt to evade Montana’s campaign and reporting requirements,” District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock wrote in his Monday ruling.

Ironically, this decision stems from a case originally brought by ATP itself. The group made headlines for successfully suing to overturn several of Montana’s campaign laws—including the state’s century-old law banning corporate spending in elections. ATP was looking to do more of the same with the suit Sherlock decided this week. During the course of that case, Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices filed counter-claims saying ATP acted illegally during the 2008 election cycle.

The move backfired for ATP. Judge Sherlock threw out its claims but upheld several of the complaints filed in response by the Commissioner’s Office. Sherlock finds the dark money group sent out anonymous mailers attacking at least 10 candidates in the 2008 election. Sherlock also said the group never reported expenditures made in support of or in opposition to candidates in 2008.

“Although ATP has cloaked itself in a patriotic and appealing name, it would appear its actions are anything but,” Sherlock wrote. “While ATP may be a partnership, it is not acting in the American Tradition.”

Requests to ATP for comment were not answered. In fact, the phone number listed on ATP’s website has been disconnected. The organization’s Executive Director, Donny Ferguson, left earlier this year and no replacement has been named.

According to Associated Press reporter Matt Gouras:

Earlier this year, the group's former attorney James Brown said it was no longer active, and its operations were in flux. He suggested it could be hard to collect any potential penalties.

Political Practices Commissioner Jon Motl said Wednesday the fine will be assessed to ATP’s board of directors during the 2008 election, a group of people he said is known.

Commissioner Motl also recently ruled ATP illegally coordinated with a number of candidates in the 2010 election. Candidates have the option of settling their fines with the commissioner’s office or taking the issue to court. He said these cases should serve as a warning to 2014 candidates.

“They need to be careful when they’re dealing with nonprofit corporations that come to them and say ‘we want to help you,’” Motl said.

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