Western Tradition Partnership responds to Unsworth

BOZEMAN – Western Tradition Partnership Executive Director Donald Ferguson released the following statement Thursday:

WTP has had very little time to review the decision today handed down by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. Consequently, WTP cannot comment on the merits of the opinion. However, Western Tradition Partnership has always obeyed all applicable campaign finance laws and regulations. In response, WTP intends to file an action against the Commissioner of Political Practices in order to vindicate its First Amendment free speech rights. WTP believes that, with time, the legal issues will resolve themselves, and will be resolved in favor of WTP.

And, that’s what this opinion and the Commissioner’s complaint process should be about, application of the law. With this in mind, WTP is very disappointed in the content and tone of the opinion. The opinion clearly denotes that the complaints filed here do not allege coordination between WTP and CEE and another party, person or entity. And, indeed, the Commissioner’s opinion itself finds no evidence of coordination.

Yet, the opinion drags the names of WTP’s counsel, the Republican Party, numerous political candidates, persons associated with different organizations, and lawful businesses into the mix and alleges that there is . These persons have nothing to do with the legal questions of whether there was proper attribution of the mailers at issue and whether WTP was/is required to file as a political committee in Montana and the Commissioner had no right and authority to make these persons and entities a part of a widely distributed public document.

It appears that the opinion is written to score political points as much as it written to discuss the application and reach of Montana’s campaign finance laws and whether the First Amendment places any limitations on those laws. The tone and content of the opinion do not reflect well on the Commissioner, his office, or the State of Montana.

Further, the timing of the opinion is interesting. Earlier this week, WTP won its case against the Commissioner on whether Montana could prohibit corporations from directly expending funds on independent expenditures. Further, this opinion was released less than two weeks away from the November 2, 2010 election date.

It must be remembered that this opinion comes from the same office that was slapped down by the Ninth Circuit of Appeals for its heavy handed, and unlawful, tactics in regulating the activities of Canyon Ferry Baptist Church in Helena. That case cost the State of Montana some $225,000. The Commissioner’s track record on determining the application of Montana’s campaign finance laws and in hindering the ability of persons and entity’s to engage in the First Amendment protected speech and association rights is not a good one.

In light of this decision, WTP believes that serious reform of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office is needed. WTP encourages the 2011 legislature to engage in oversight of the activities of this office and its expenditures.

Further, WTP encourages the State of Montana to do what other states have done and remove the Commissioner of Political Practices position from being a governor appointed one. Such partisan appointments, when combined with decisions such as this one, do not install faith in the independence of the office for those who engage in political speech and activities in Montana.

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