American Tradition Partnership

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

Learn more from the Center for Media and Democracy's research on climate change.

Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) -- which changed its name in 2010 to American Tradition Partnership (ATP), and spun off the 501(c)(3) Western Tradition Institute (WTI) -- is a radical anti-environmental organization linked to the law firm of Colorado's now-Secretary of State, Scott Gessler[1],[2].

The group is registered in Denver, Colorado.[3]

Mission

WTP/ATP bills itself as "a no-compromise grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda." The group promotes development of land, water and natural resources in the Rocky Mountain West and throughout the United States. It promotes free-market economics.[4] It says on its website that

Dozens of radical eco-organizations whose stated purpose is to dismantle the free enterprise system – and our Constitutionally protected rights – through so-called environmental protection have set their sights on robbing Americans of the right to exist, achieve and produce.[5]

History

One of ATP’s founders is former Montana Congressman Ron Marlenee, who served from 1977 until the state dropped from two House seats to one in 1992. Marlenee used his D.C. Rolodex to raise money for the fledgling pro-energy group, which registered in Colorado in 2008.[6]

ATP has joined tea party lobbying efforts, signing at least two letters to Congress in the last year urging an end to an end to tax credits for wind power and natural gas-fueled vehicles. The letters were signed by Koch-funded groups including Americans for Prosperity and tea party boosters FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Art Pope’s John Locke Foundation[citation needed].

In its 2008 application for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization, ATP listed its “primary donor” as Jacob Jabs, Colorado’s largest furniture retailer and a donor to Republican candidates and causes. Jabs pledged a $300,000 contribution to get ATP on its feet, according to IRS records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity[citation needed]. Jabs's spokeswoman said he did not make a donation and has "never heard of" ATP or the group's previous incarnation[citation needed]. Jabs also poured money into a failed “right to work” ballot initiative in Colorado, becoming a television spokesman for the 2008 anti-union effort[citation needed].

Controversies

Meth House Exposé

Pro Publica reported a bonanza of third-party, dark-money coordination with state candidates in Colorado and Montana that were found in a meth house in Colorado.[7] The boxes contained files for 23 candidates for state office. They also held fliers and questionnaires from outside spending groups. Western Tradition Partnership seemed to be pulling the strings, working with campaigns on strategy and surveys.

The documents were filed by Christian LeFer and many of the checks paid out by Western Tradition Partnership were signed by his wife, Allison.[8] The documents ultimately found in the meth house were taken from Allison LeFer's car, both the LeFers confirm. 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. Social welfare nonprofits like WTP are allowed to engage in some political activity, but IRS regulations say they must have social welfare as their primary purpose. Some of these 501(c)(4) nonprofits exploit gaps in enforcement between the IRS and election authorities so they don't have to disclose where they get their money.[9]

WTP had sought a protective injunction against the records’ release. Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock wrote in a 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.” Jacob Jabs, a furniture retailer in Colorado, was named by Western Tradition Partnership as a donor of $300,000. After this was made public, Jabs said "I did talk to Christian LeFer," Jabs said. "They basically admitted they used me to get their 501(c)(4) status."[10] He also told Pro Publica, "I think they just grabbed my name out of a hat to forward their agenda. I know nothing about the group, never heard of them, never have heard of them until the last few days, and I did not, absolutely did not, commit $300,000 to start this company." To further underscore this, he told The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, “I never, ever gave them a penny. It’s all crap. None of it is true. They’re using my name" without his knowledge or permission, Jabs said. “It’s a big scam.”[11]

The attorney general's office said that ATP was in "willful disobedience" of court orders to produce records as part of discovery in the case.[12] "I have never seen anyone stand in front of a judge and say his client's choice is not to obey that judge's orders, and furthermore to say they will continue to disobey the courts orders," said Assistant Attorney General Andy Huff. The state said documents still not produced by the group as ordered by the judge include organizational records, a list of board members, bylaws, meeting minutes and some communications. The state argues that ATP is not really a nonprofit, social welfare organization as it claims — and says it is really a front group to allow anonymous money to flow into the elections process. ATP attorney James Brown argues the court's order violates the group's constitutional speech and other rights. But he told Sherlock that ATP did not appeal prior orders to produce the records because it does not believe it would win in front of the Montana Supreme Court.

The night of Halloween, 2012, five days before the national election, there was a break-in at the Office of the Commissioner of Campaign Finances and Practices, where the meth house documents were stored.[13] Nothing was reported missing. Financial statements were due October 25 from nearly every candidate for political office in the state, resulting in piles of documents on desks and counters in the office in recent days. "It is hard to tell for sure [if anything was missing] because there are so many documents here in the office," political practices program supervisor Mary Baker said. The previous week, on October 22, there had been a break-in at the Helena campaign office of Attorney General Steve Bullock, who was then running for Governor. A laptop and $1,500 in campaign donations were taken.

A federal grand jury subpoenaed the documents to investigate illegal coordination, also citing the break-in as a need to keep the documents in a safe place.[14]

Breaking State Campaign Laws

An article in the October 22, 2010 Montana Missoulian reported that the Western Tradition Partnership broke state campaign laws when it mailed fliers attacking legislative candidates in the run-up to an election without registering as a political committee and publicly disclosing the source and disposition of its funds. A two-year investigation of the group uncovered a PowerPoint presentation created in 2010 that said the group planned to spend $537,000 on Montana elections that year. The state Commission of Political Practices said the group should pay civil penalties and face further investigation. [15]

2012 Political Activity

Citizens United and Campaign Finance

American Tradition Partnership was at the center of much political activity in 2012. Most prominently, the group helped the Supreme Court underscore their Citizens United decision by suing the state of Montana, overturning century-old campaign-finance disclosure laws. The U.S. Supreme Court upended and reversed Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General of Montana, a case where the Montana Supreme Court decided Citizens United did not apply to Montana's thorough campaign finance laws.[16]

In the federal court's 5-4 decision, the minority declared “Even if I were to accept Citizens United, this court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana. Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the state had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations,” said Justice Steven Breyer. He added, “Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.”[17]

In the Montana court's 5-2 decision, writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath noted a century ago "the state of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests. The voters had more than enough of the corrupt practices and heavy-handed influence asserted by the special interests controlling Montana’s political institutions.”[18]

Montana state attorneys think in challenging various campaign laws, American Tradition Partnership instead violated the laws.[19] Mike Black, an assistant attorney general defending the state against a lawsuit from ATP, said the state believes that ATP is a front for political money that wants to illegally hide its identity and spending activity. “We believe it was a sham from the beginning,” he notes. ATP has been fighting in court for two years against a state ruling that it is a political committee, and therefore must publicly report its campaign-related spending and financial donors.

American Tradition Partnership started a "newspaper" in 2012, The Montana Statesman. The paper ran front-page articles attacking state Attorney General Steve Bullock, who was prosecuting them while he was also running for Governor. It accused Bullock of failing to prosecute child molesters. Other stories attacked the state auditor, a Supreme Court candidate and the secretary of state.

Republican Complaints of Illegal Coordination in the GOP Primary

Two Republican legislators who won primary elections despite a barrage of third-party attacks have filed political practices complaints against American Tradition Partnership and others.[20] Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell, and Rep. John Esp of Big Timber argued that ATP illegally coordinated efforts with their primary election opponents. Tutvedt, who survived a close primary challenge in June, filed a complaint against his opponent, Rollan Roberts II, and American Tradition Partnership, Taxpayers for Liberty and the National Association for Gun Rights.

Tutvedt said he was attacked by 10 separate mailers, which, like his opponent’s direct mail, all came from the same mail order house in Loveland, Colo. These included mailers from ATP, Taxpayers for Liberty and the National Association for Gun Rights. In addition, a letter from Rollan Roberts’s wife, printed on pink stationery, was sent to voters, “per Christian LeFer,” a former ATP official, Tutvedt said. LeFer’s wife, Allison, who at one time signed most of ATP’s checks, owns a printing company that shared a post office box address with ATP[citation needed]. Tutvedt said Roberts’ website and numerous mailings never indicated their source of funding. “I have real problems with dark money,” Tutvedt said in an interview with The Missoulian.

Esp filed two separate complaints arising from his 2010 primary. One was against Direct Mail and Western Tradition Partnership. “I just think dark money is a problem in the election process (in) that you can have anonymous money (spent) that doesn’t have to tell the truth.” Esp said, “It’s time for them to play fair if they’re going to play in politics. If the rest of us have to follow the rules, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have to follow the rules too.”[citation needed] Esp alleged that at a candidate forum in Big Timber in May 2010, a number of people associated with ATP and his opponent’s campaign manager “seemed to arrive together and hung out together throughout the event.” He said they included Allison LeFer, whose Direct Mail company worked for his opponent's campaign; a young woman working for Christian LeFer; his opponent's campaign manager; an unidentified young man who was introduced to Esp by Allison LeFer and told he was working for a sportsmen’s rights group; and others. ATP, the sportsmen’s group and others “were sending out mailings negative to my campaign,” Esp said, alleging illegal coordination.

Funding

The group says it is supported entirely by members.[21]

IRS status and 990 Forms

According to an IRS document provided by former WTP executive director Donald Ferguson, WTP is a 501(c)(4), with EIN 26-2289809, original address c/o Scott Shires[citation needed].

Despite the fact that it has been active since 2008, the group does not appear to have filed any 990s prior to its first in 2011. "The tax form shows that ATP brought in $122,542 in 2011."[3]

Personnel

On January 4, 2013, it was announced that executive director Danny Ferguson left the group to become the spokesman for Texas Republican Representative Steve Stockman.[22] By Montana enforcing the law, Ferguson said that “illegal actions” of the state have caused “significant hardship” for ATP.[23]

Board of Directors

According to the group's 2011 990 form, its unpaid directors are:[3]

  • Peter MacKenzie
  • Jack Wells
  • Dan Reed
  • Doug Lair

Contact Details

Web: http://americantradition.org
E-mail: info AT americantradition.org
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ATPAmerica
Twitter: http://twitter.com/ATPAmerica

Articles and resources

References

  1. Kaye Fissinger (2010-02-12). What’s behind this curtain?. Free Range Longmont. Retrieved on 2011-11-05. “[Gessler is] Registered agent for the Montana organization Western Tradition Partnership”
  2. TRACER - Committee Detail - WESTERN TRADITION PARTNERSHIP EDUCATION FUND. Colorado Secretary of State. Retrieved on 2011-11-05. “Committee ID: 20105018765 - Physical Address: PO BOX 88 - Committee Type: 527 Political Organization - Date Registered: 10/13/2010 - Phone: 888-987-8721 [ATP's phone#] - Purpose: TO SUPPORT OR OPPOSE CANDIDATES BASED ON POSITION ON ENVIRONMENTAL AND BUSINESS ISSUES. - Registered Agent: MARIO DANIEL NICOLAIS II Phone: 303-534-4317 - Email: ...@HACKSTAFFGESSLER.COM”
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Viveca Novak, "American Tradition Partnership Files First 990, Reveals Little", OpenSecrets.org, February 21, 2013
  4. Western Tradition Partnership Western Tradition Partnership Home page, accessed June 7, 2010
  5. Western Tradition Partnership Mission, organizational Web site, accessed June 7, 2010
  6. Paul Abowd, "Obscure nonprofit threatens campaign finance limits beyond Montana" The Center for Public Integrity, October 26, 2012
  7. Kim Barker, Rick Young & Emma Schwartz, "Documents Found in Meth House Bare Inner Workings of Dark Money Group" Pro Publica, October 28, 2012
  8. Kim Barker, Rick Young & Emma Schwartz "Dark Money Group’s Bank Records Suggest Ties to Campaign Work" Pro Publica, November 2, 2012
  9. Kim Barker, Rick Young & Emma Schwartz, "More Evidence Key Dark Money Group May Have Misled IRS" Pro Publica, October 30, 2012
  10. Kim Barker, Rick Young & Emma Schwartz, "More Evidence Key Dark Money Group May Have Misled IRS" Pro Publica, October 30, 2012
  11. Gail Schonztler, "Jabs denies any link to campaign-finance challengers" The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, November 9, 2012
  12. Associated Press, "Political practices reports apparent break-in" Independent Record, November 1, 2012
  13. Associated Press, "Political practices reports apparent break-in" Independent Record, November 1, 2012
  14. Associated Press, "Feds take conservative group's disputed documents" The Billings Gazette, December 20, 2012
  15. Mike Dennison Ruling says Western Tradition Partnership broke state campaign law, Montana Missoulian, October 22, 2010
  16. Adam Liptak, "Court Declines to Revisit Its Citizens United Decision" The New York Times, June 25, 2012
  17. American Tradition Partnership, Inc. FKA Western Tradition Partnership, Inc., et al. v. Steve Bullock, Attorney General of Montana, et al., Supreme Court decision, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-1179h9j3.pdf, June 25, 2012
  18. Western Tradition Partnership vs. Montana Montana Supreme Court case, http://electionlawblog.org/wp-content/uploads/MT-expenditures-decision.pdf
  19. Mike Dennison, "Director of shadowy political group ATP resigns; group faces more legal troubles" The Billings Gazette, January 3, 2013
  20. Charles S. Johnson, "Montana legislators file complaints against American Tradition Partnership" The Missoulian, December 11, 2012
  21. Western Tradition Partnership Fraud and deceit employed in the dangerous wolf "reintroduction" program Press release, May 11, 2010
  22. Associated Press, "Political group's director resigns" The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, January 4, 2013
  23. Mike Dennison, "Director of shadowy political group ATP resigns; group faces more legal troubles" The Billings Gazette, January 3, 2013

Related SourceWatch articles

External resources

American Tradition Partnership website ( http://www.americantradition.org/ - not to be confused with the American Tradition Institute website at http://www.atinstitute.org/ )

External articles