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Following the money

Montanans in Action’s ballot initiatives under fire

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Of all Montana’s fiercely held political ideals, “the grassroots” is one of the most treasured. Maybe that’s why the government-shrinking trio of initiatives funded amply by the political committee Montanans in Action (MIA) has drawn so much controversy, most recently in the form of a series of complaints to Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices alleging MIA’s failure to keep detailed accounts and report contributions properly, and questioning whether MIA is simply a channel for money from an out-of-state organization driving ballot measures in more than a dozen states.

Four complaints, one each against the ballot committees and MIA, were filed by Helena attorney and longtime initiative engineer Jon Motl July 17.

Since MIA’s incorporation in December 2005, the organization has spent $633,000 campaigning for three initiatives: CI-97, a government spending cap; CI-98, allowing citizen recall of judges for any reason, and I-154, an eminent-domain restriction and takings law hybrid, all of which qualified for the November ballot July 21. Another $600,000 was sent by wire transfer from MIA to California for the I-154 look-alike Proposition 90.

But MIA’s treasurer, Trevis Butcher, has repeatedly refused to disclose the sources of more than $1 million in contributions, saying MIA’s status as a 501c(4) incidental committee “not organized or maintained for the primary purpose of influencing elections” absolves it of the state requirement to disclose the sources of donations not earmarked for a particular purpose.

That claim raised the eyebrows of Motl and Missoula consultant C.B. Pearson, Motl’s partner in 20 years of campaign-related efforts.

“They’re resisting both the spirit of the law and its technical aspect,” Pearson says. “Disclosure allows us to understand what interests are involved in a campaign.”

Since the only way a private citizen can gain access to a political committee’s financial records is to be part of an opposing committee, Motl and Pearson hastily formed Montanans for Fair Initiatives, then demanded that Butcher hand over 350 pages of committee records. Motl audited the books. He found numerous discrepancies: for example, of 200 expenses reported, the CI-97 committee produced 45 bills and receipts, of which 27 were accurately reported, four were late, and 14 were unreported.

“This is the group that’s going to tell us how state government should be funded, and they’ve got reports missing and not filed properly?” Motl asks.

But the crux of Motl’s complaint is MIA’s role: the complaint claims that MIA and the ballot committees violate Montana law “by reporting contributions as MIA contributions when the same actually came from Americans for Limited Government or other such groups.”

Montana has strong anti-laundering laws, according to Motl, who says the $600,000 donation to California was an improper transaction if MIA was used as a clearinghouse for money from another source.

Americans for Limited Government is chaired by New York’s lavish-spending libertarian Howard Rich. Connecting the dollar signs between Rich’s Chicago-based ALG and Montanans in Action has been mostly an exercise in speculation, since Montanans In Action’s finance report discloses no contributors, but Rich recently told High Country News that he gave $200,000 to MIA through his Fund for Democracy, and Butcher acknowledged in June that ALG had given a loan to MIA; the committees’ finance reports declare more than $8,000 in checks for loan repay to ALG “lost.” An e-mail Butcher sent to ALG President John Tillman requesting a routing number for a petition-gathering outfit is also in Motl’s complaint to suggest ties between the two organizations.

According to newspaper reports, Rich’s Americans for Limited Government, Fund for Democracy and U.S. Term Limits are providing the majority of funding for initiatives in at least nine states. The measures that Tillman calls “our state campaigns” are similar, with some differences in ballot language, to CI-97 (known as Stop OverSpending) and I-154 (or Protect Our Homes Montana).

A survey of the nation’s ballot initiatives reveals Stop OverSpending Michigan, Stop OverSpending Oklahoma and Stop OverSpending Nebraska, and five Protect Our Homes measures, in California, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma and Nevada (Missouri and Oklahoma’s initiatives were struck down before they could qualify for the ballot).

The name “Montanans in Action” isn’t one-of-a-kind: there’s also Oregonians in Action and Oklahomans in Action, the latter of which, despite being funded by ALG, failed to get either its eminent-domain or its state-spending initiatives on the ballot.

Pearson says there’s no essential difference in the disclosure requirements of the various state laws, and MIA’s failure to disclose financial information amounts to “thumbing their nose at the system.”

Here in Montana, the controversy over disclosure will continue at least until Aug. 11, MIA’s deadline to respond to the complaint.

Sen. Joe Balyeat, chairman of Protect Our Homes Montana and a promoter of Stop OverSpending, says that because Montana is a low-income state and the iniative time frame is so short, money has to come from outside the state.

“It doesn’t mean Montanans don’t support the issue,” he says.

As to financial disclosure, says Balyeat, it’s a “red herring argument” that distracts from the policy on the ballot.

Motl disagrees. The initiative process, he says, must be honored whether Montanans In Action is trying to cover up out-of-state contributions or simply “believe in their issue so much that they’ve lost sight of the fact that they cannot disregard the rules.”

“We expect to know and want to know much more about this,” Pearson adds. “It smells. It’s got a stench.” For his part, Butcher filed his own complaint July 19 alleging that a Billings police detective conducted a “personal, politically-motivated investigation” of a Stop OverSpending petitioner while on duty. That complaint has yet to be investigated.

news@missoulanews.com

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