“Zombie Money” in Montana Elections, Part Two by Skinner
With one week to go until election day here in Montana, Dave Skinner follows the money for us once again.
Skinner wrote a weekly column for The Flathead Beacon in Kalispell. He has also done some incredible writing for Range Magazine where he has "followed the money" to see who is funding radical Left-wing outfits like the American Prairie Reserve, which is working to kick the ranchers off the land here in Montana.
In case you missed it, Skinner detailed some of the dark money groups that have been revived in the 2022 elections. He called them "zombie" groups because they appeared to rise back from the dead. For those who missed it here, is part one- SKINNER: THE “ZOMBIE” MONEY BACKING GUSTAFSON & TRANEL IN MT
Here's part two.
Dark Money Zombies
by Dave Skinner
Last time on Montana Talks, we discussed Big Sky Voters PAC, a federal super PAC first created in the spring of 2020 to support term-limited Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s Senate race against Republican Steve Daines.
After Bullock lost his race, like too many political money laundries, Big Sky Voters Super PAC was shut down, mothballed until such time it would be needed, or at least funded, again.
Fast forward to 2022, and as we discussed, Big Sky Voters Super PAC is back from the dead, darker than ever, revived by undisclosed backers, and buying TV and Internet ads in the Ryan Zinke/Monica Tranel race for Montana’s new “western” U.S. House seat. Who is really paying for this stuff? Well, thanks to loopholes in federal and state laws, and a Montana media that seems too greedy and scared to bite the hands that feed them, we Montana voters will probably never know until after the votes have been counted and all the political hacks paid.
Just about two weeks after Big Sky Voter’s attacks on Zinke began airing, another Montana political zombie crawled out of the political graveyard, Montanans for Liberty and Justice. If that clever, innocuous, even patriotic name rings a bell, good for you, because Montanans for Liberty and Justice (MLJ) is yet another dark money zombie. The dirty details of how it keeps coming back to life are all here.
But if you don’t want the dirty details, what you need to know about Montanans for Liberty and Justice before you vote is this: Montanans for Liberty and Justice is, and has always been, almost completely a creature of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association. The Montana Lawyers PAC almost solely funded Montanans for Liberty and Justice in the primary, just a little under $300,000. After the summer, in middle September, yet another unknown PAC jumped on board. A Better Big Sky so far seems to be the biggest and only funder of Montanans for Liberty and Justice in the 2022 general election, giving $292,000 so far, with the biggest chunk being a single check of $250,000 from sources unknown.
And underlying this all is the strange coincidence that Mary Stranahan, Big Sky Voters PAC treasurer and multi-millionairess Champion spark plug trust funder, is none other than Mary Stranahan, Board Chair for A Better Big Sky. Could the world get any smaller? Is it all Mary’s money? She certainly is wealthy enough, but we humble Montana voters will probably never know.
But know this: Montanans for Liberty and Justice is a zombie shell, a twin to Big Sky Voters PAC. It is controlled by an unholy alliance of trial lawyers and at least one super-wealthy radical environmentalist. And this zombie twin is all in for Ingrid Gustafson and against James Brown in what is supposed to be a “nonpartisan” Supreme Court race.
Anatomy of a Zombie Twin
MLJ was first created in 2014 as a Montana political committee, at the time focused on “independently” supporting the Supreme Court candidacy of Mike Wheat, a Bozeman trial lawyer and one-term Democratic state senator who also ran and lost in the 2008 Democratic race for Montana attorney general. In 2010 he was appointed to the Montana Supreme Court by then-governor Brian Schweitzer, winning election in 2010 and re-election in 2014.
Back then, the Montana Republican Party filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices (COPP) that was eventually dismissed. But that complaint noted the physical address of record for Montanans for Liberty and Justice was “the same as that of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.” Does anyone seriously wonder why the Trial Lawyers didn’t buy advertising over their own name in support of Justice Wheat? Yep, so they created a front group.
Well, fast forward to 2022, and guess what? Montanans for Liberty and Justice is back, with at least six figures worth so far of professional, Washington, DC-produced-and-purchased TV ads supporting Ingrid Gustafson, a Billings lawyer and judge who was appointed to the Montana Supreme Court in 2017 by Governor Steve Bullock to replace the retiring Mike Wheat (yep).
What’s going on? Same old same old, basically. As an independent Montana political committee, MLJ must file reports with Montana’s COPP office, and MLJ apparently has. Unfortunately, the Montana COPP’s so-called Campaign Electronic Reporting System (CERES) is a complete train wreck, not surprising given that COPP’s funding is set by the Montana Legislature, and both parties want to keep their secrets, especially from voters.
Users must search both an “electronic” CERES and a “hard copy” CERES, and navigation of both is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, even with documents from as far back as 2000 remaining “in process” and unavailable except as raw hard-copy scan results, it’s possible to get a rough, and we mean rough, idea of what’s going on.
As in 2014, the revived 2022 MLJ is fully under the control of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association. MLJ’s 2022 address of record is identical to that of the Montana Trial Lawyers, 32 South Ewing #104 in Helena. Treasurer is Allen Smith, Jr., executive director of MTLA, deputy treasurer is Mary Taylor, MTLA’s “education coordinator.”
MTLA itself is a federal 501c6 IRS nonprofit, meaning contributions are treated as business expenses, not as charitable donations. Political activity including lobbying and advertising is allowed, both partisan and nonpartisan, but those who provide the funds supporting such political activity are not subject to public disclosure.
Back to MLJ: Since 2014, MLJ has been sporadically used to support MTLA-favored judicial candidates in select races. As one example, in 2018 MLJ paid Mission Control, apparently a Connecticut direct-mail firm, roughly $26,000 for mail and digital ads supporting lawyer Julie Pierce in a tight Billings judge race. Pierce lost very narrowly, and after a recount costing Yellowstone County $20,000, lost by six more votes.
What about 2022? Fortunately, unlike Montana Law PAC, COPP’s hard-copy CERES database for MLJ is fairly complete, with C-6 finance reports are available for April, May, June (monthly because of the primary election) and September, covering the summer of 2022.
MLJ’s April 2022 C-6 shows MLJ began April with $2,669 in the bank. Thankfully, a nice tidy $70,000 came in April 20th from the Montana Law PAC. Sorry, but you can forget finding out anything substantive about Montana Law PAC’s activities this year, only two C-2 “statement of organization” documents are available from the COPP. But both of those show that Montana Law PAC is yet another entity completely controlled by the Montana Trial Lawyers: Same building, same floor, different “suite” (306 instead of 304), same treasurers (Smith and Taylor).
MLJ’s May report shows payments of roughly $130,000 to Dover Strategy Group of Philadelphia, PA for Facebook and mail in support of Ingrid Gustafson.
Does MLJ enjoy any grassroots support from ordinary Montanans? Well, their June 2022 C-6 shows an ending cash balance of $62,750.25, with a bit coming from “retired” individual contributor Lynn Larson of Stevensville: $200.
The June C-6 also reveals Montana Law PAC paid in a total of $232,746.52 to support Ingrid Gustafson in the June primary, of which roughly $36,000 was reported as expenditures and a debt totaling roughly $36,000 to Lake Research Partners, a famous Democratic polling house in Washington, DC run by Montana native Celinda Lake, famous thanks to Lake’s close work with the Bill Clinton campaign and presidential administration.
The September C-6 is probably the most illustrative report. After the primary election, MLJ had a little over $61,000 cash in bank. No individuals contributed all summer. But three “independent committees,” Montana Federation of Public Employees, Planned Parenthood and Working Montana PAC, gave $4000 each in “in-kind” services on September 12, independently of course.
But just before that, on September 9, came $250,000 in one check from “A Better Big Sky” (ABBS for short) at PO Box 7134 in Missoula. Wow, right? Even more interesting, ABBS’s contribution total for the general election is shown in the C-6 as $292,000 – meaning there’s another $42,000 that was given at another time. Who are they?
Well, back to the COPP records: ABBS has duly filed its C-2 statement of organization and two C-6 reports. The C-2 lists the Missoula post-office box, treasurer Tim Stevens and deputy treasurer Stacie Anderson, but ABBS’s First Interstate Bank account is in Billings. Contact information is by E-mail, domain “abetterbigsky.org”, but only the deputy has a telephone number. That number (406-544-0406), is not a Missoula number, but rather Billings. More on that in a minute.
ABBS’s first C-6, ending August 25, 2022, shows no cash at any time, no expenditures, no receipts, no fundraisers. But it does list an “in kind” donation to Montanans for Liberty and Justice, $42,000 for a “Lake Research Poll on the MT Supreme Court.”
The second C-6, ending September 25, is where things get even weirder. Sure enough, there’s a committee contribution of $250,000 to Montanans for Liberty and Justice on September 9 that adds to the $42,000 in kind poll balance due to Lake Partners – basically accounting for the full $292,000 MLJ lists as coming from ABBS as a committee contribution. What the heck? So which way did the money go? Clearly, it went to MLJ from ABBS, because the money is listed by MLJ as a receipt. But ABBS still claims a $250,000 cash balance.
Seems neither Mr. Stevens nor Ms. Anderson are accountants. So, what do they really do? As noted above, the treasurer Emails were both @ domain abetterbigsky.org. That domain was anonymously registered on August 8, 2018, predating “our” A Better Big Sky by four full years. Now, that’s amazing foresight, right? No.
It turns out A Better Big Sky isn’t purely an “incidental committee” that found $292,000 under the sofa cushions. has been around since 2018.
A Better Big Sky is actually a full-fledged an IRS 501c4, EIN 82-5313159, classified under voter education and registration. Formed in 2018, ABBS has filed Form 990 returns with the IRS, available on Guidestar. ABBS’s actual physical address is 220 South 27th Street, Suite B in Billings. Suite B is also the home suite of the Western Organization of Resource Councils – an environmental group that oversees a number of subsidiary anti-development “resource councils” and other progressive affiliates scattered across the inland West.
ABBS seems to be yet another environmentalist fiscal cutout, aimed at making grants after receiving funds anonymously, as all IRS nonprofits are entitled by law to receive. ABBS’s first two years show less than $200,000 in annual activity, with most of that going to staff salaries and contract workers. What happened in 2020 and 2021? Those IRS returns have not been made public.
Listed on ABBS’s Form 990s are ABBS executive director Stacie Anderson (salary, $67,094 according to CauseIQ’s summary web page) and treasurer Tim Stevens, salary $0. But that’s all right. In his day job, he’s Montana fund advisor to Delaware-based environmental grantmaker Kendeda Fund. Kendeda’s 2019 IRS Form 990, the most recent, shows Kendeda made $57 million in grants that year, and that Mr. Stevens’ Kendeda salary was $167,000 plus $34,000 in employee benefits.
Still, who is really calling the shots and writing checks at ABBS? It might be ABBS Board Chair Mary Stranahan – who by some crazy coincidence is the Champion spark-plug multi-million-heiress who just so happens to be treasurer of the Big Sky Voters PAC running TV ads against Republican U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke?
Yep, her. Was it her $250,000 that found its way to Montanans for Liberty and Justice’s television ads? We all remember how Montana’s legislature and former governor Steve Bullock collaborated on bipartisan campaign finance reform to fix the problem once and for all, right?
Oh, they fixed it all right. I contacted Montana COPP’s office because I could find no record either in ABBS or MLJ’s filings regarding who paid in the $250,000 cash, or even has promised to pay the $42,000 due Lake Research Partners for that poll. The nice lady at COPP wrote me back and explained:
“Unless the money comes “earmarked” to the Incidental committee, an incidental committee does not need to report the source of their funds. Incidental committees USUALLY only show expenditures. PAC’s (Independent Committees / Political Action Committees) report the source of the income and the expenditures (like Montana Law PAC does).”
And we remember how Steve Bullock’s presidential campaign was focused on “dark money,” including a promise for an executive order than anyone doing business with the government would have to “disclose every dollar that you are either spending or donating to influence our elections.” The bottom line of all this is, the two PAC’s that were first out of the gate in Montana’s 2022 midterm elections are textbook examples of how the political dark money game is played, in dirty secret – against every single voter in Montana.