By John S. Adams, MTFP Editor-in-Chief
HELENA – Thousands of newly uncovered documents and recently filed court records bolster the already mounting evidence tying the anti-union National Right to Work Committee to the political activities of conservative nonprofit groups accused of improperly coordinating Republican legislative primary campaigns in Montana.
Emails, documents, and affidavits recently obtained by Montana’s commissioner of political practices paint a detailed picture of how the national anti-union group oversaw the activities of American Tradition Partnership, the group at the center of allegations of illegal third-party influence in Montana Republican primary campaigns in 2008, 2010, and 2012.
The National Right to Work Committee is a 501(c)4 “social welfare” group that, according to the IRS, is not supposed to engage in “direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”
Tens of thousands of pages of emails obtained by Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl show a link between top NRTWC officials and political campaign activities in Montana.
A former NRTWC employee said in a sworn affidavit filed in Helena District Court that NRTWC staff was relocated to Montana to work on the 2010 primary campaign and their work was overseen by the political director of the national organization, Dimitri Kesari. Emails provided to Motl show that National Right to Work executive director Jedd Coburn was in regular communication with the groups doing political work in Montana and provided text for candidates’ campaign materials.
Motl said this latest trove of information is significant because it proves ATP was not acting as independent issue advocacy organizations, as the groups claimed, but were instead part of a massive, coordinated campaign machine funded by an out-of state organization with the goal of changing the make-up of the Montana Legislature.
“Christian LeFer was here as a field operative for National Right to Work. Once you get there, then National Right to Work’s central role is more apparent,” Motl said. “I don’t think you can underestimate the significance, or the threat, that a coordinated, funded, centralized corporate-take-over of candidates poses (to elections).”
Motl said in 2008, when Western Tradition Partnership first emerged on the scene in Montana, and in 2010 when the group changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, most people, including a previous commissioner of political practices, believed the group was an independent entity.
“You can see from looking at all of these documents that it wasn’t,” Motl said.
A spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee did not return multiple phone calls or emails seeking comment for this story. Christian LeFer, who was the director of Montana Citizens for Right to work and ran two political nonprofits in Montana, also did not respond to email inquiries.
According to a U.S. Senate lobbying disclosure database, NRTWC spent more than $42 million between 1999 and 2016 lobbying the Senate to pass a national “Right to Work” bill. Dimitri Kesari was one of the group’s top lobbyists in Washington, D.C., during most of that period. Montana is one of the few Western states without a “right-to-work” law. Such laws prohibit labor unions from requiring employees to join the union or pay dues as a condition of employment.
LeFer’s Montana nonprofit group Western Tradition Partnership made national headlines in 2012 when Frontline and ProPublica reported about boxes of documents that revealed how the organization coordinated with Republican legislative candidates.
WTP is also the group that successfully sued the state in 2011 and eventually overturned Montana’s 100-year-old ban on corporate spending in elections.
Former staffers and interns who worked for WTP, its successor group American Tradition Partnership, and Christian and Allison LeFer, the Colorado couple who ran those organizations and a host of other political groups, turned over thousands of emails to Motl as part of an investigation leading up to a civil lawsuit.
Motl is suing Bozeman Republican Rep. Art Wittich in Helena District Court, alleging Wittich broke Montana campaign finance laws by accepting illegal corporate campaign contributions. Motl alleges WTP/ATP and other groups provided coordinated campaign services to Wittich and other conservative Republican candidates at little or no cost to the candidates.
Wittich has denied the allegations, saying he paid for the services he was provided. He has accused Motl of engaging in a “political witch hunt.”
That case is scheduled to go to jury trial March 28.
Motl made the email documents available for inspection by reporters in response to a series of public information requests from the Montana Free Press and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Some of the documents in the emails tying NRTWC to WTP/ATP’s Montana primary campaign activities include:
Many of the highlights of the emails come from Andrew O’Neill, a staffer who worked on graphics and website design on behalf of WTP/ATP and the various campaign services corporations run by the LeFers.
A review of the emails indicates O’Neill was deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the organizations centered on GOP legislative campaigns. The emails indicate O’Neill and other WTP/ATP staffers had regular communication with the LeFers and high-level NRTWC officials surrounding the campaigns of Republican legislative candidates.
In one of the emails, a document details the offerings of a turn-key campaign operation called Smart Simple Campaigns which says: “EVERYTHING BELOW WE DO FOR INVITEES IS FREE OR AT COST.”
In another email, Christian LeFer invited 26 Republican legislative candidates to candidate training seminar in Bozeman.
“Your campaign’s effectiveness and your ability to recruit volunteers, and fundraise will immensely benefit, money-back guaranteed,” the email states, adding, “Please do not forward…”
Motl said that is the main problem with the operation: The NRTWC-affiliated groups in Montana provided services and labor to certain candidates without disclosing what was done or how much was spent. In some cases, the documents show, those groups gave away those services for free.
“The significant thing for Montanans is that in the 2010 Montana Republican primary elections, there was a group that consistently sought privacy with the candidates it was working with, and provided those candidates services that were compensated by paid professional staff with the payment being from the National Right to Work Committee to those staff people,” Motl said. “Those paid staff provided sophisticated, targeted voter id lists for the legislative districts that candidates were running in. They provided walking lists for the candidates. They did graphics for the candidates; they built websites. And the candidates didn’t pay for it.”