Shadowy liberal groups helped propel to victory a gubernatorial candidate who has led the fight against undisclosed "dark money" and championed transparency in political spending.
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock led Montana’s efforts during his tenure as the state’s attorney general to undermine legal protections for private corporations and nonprofits that speak publicly about political issues.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Montana law in June championed by Bullock that prohibited independent political communications by corporations.
Bullock has continued his crusade since winning the governorship in November.
"We have seen the rise of so-called ‘dark money’ groups that target candidates, yet refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent," he said in his Jan. 30 State of the State address. "They hide behind made-up names and made-up newspapers. They operate out of P.O. boxes or Washington, D.C. office buildings. They falsely proclaim themselves the guardians of Montana's traditions."
The headquarters of the Democratic consulting firm Hilltop Public Solutions appears to be one such Washington, D.C. office building: It serves as the mailing address for a number of pro-Bullock independent expenditure groups that were active during his election campaign.
Meanwhile, Hilltop was receiving payments directly from the Bullock campaign. Disclosure forms show that the Bullock campaign paid Hilltop for travel expenses and a series of conference calls throughout the year, as first reported by Media Trackers.
Hilltop’s involvement in the conference calls themselves is not clear.
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment. However, Kevin O’Brien, the governor’s deputy chief of staff and former campaign manager, told USA Today correspondent John Adams that allegations of coordination between the campaign and independent expenditure groups are "unsubstantiated and misleading," though O’Brien declined to directly deny the allegations.
Hilltop did not respond to questions about its involvement in Montana’s gubernatorial race. However, publicly available information suggests that the group was coordinating a large effort through both direct work for the campaign and a web of "independent" groups to elect Bullock.
Shortly after receiving payments for those campaign-related conference calls, Hilltop began work for a pair of political action committees, soliciting fees in exchange for work supporting Bullock’s campaign.
One of those committees, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, paid Hilltop for salaried canvassers, mailings, and "management fees" in support of the Bullock campaign. Hilltop associate Molly Bell also coordinated hiring for Planned Parenthood activists during the campaign, according to a post on the group’s Facebook page.
A union-backed 527 called the Build Montana PAC paid Hilltop $9,000 for graphic design services that appear to be associated with a mailer supporting Bullock’s campaign, for which printing and mailing fees were paid to another vendor on the same day.
Build Montana PAC also enlisted the services of a firm called Brushfire Strategies, whose founding partner, Marco Guido, is a principal at Hilltop. Build Montana paid Brushfire more than $12,000 for phone banking in support of Bullock. That payment was mailed to Hilltop’s Washington D.C. office, at 1000 Potomac St. NW, Suite 500.
A state environmentalist group called Montana Conservation Voters (MCV) also hired Hilltop to support Bullock’s campaign, making multiple payments for campaign mailers. Hilltop associate Joe Splinter was MCV’s development director until 2011.
MCV also paid Brushfire Strategies for Bullock phone-banking. Those payments were also mailed to Hilltop’s office.
Splinter was also listed as the treasurer for an independent expenditure group called Montana Hunters and Anglers Leadership Fund, which was active in the 2012 Montana Senate race. That group paid Brushfire to conduct get-out-the-vote calls in November, and mailed the payment to Hilltop’s headquarters.
Three Point Media has done work for a 501(c)(4) group called the Citizens for Strength and Security Fund (CSS Fund), producing multiple ads for the group during the 2012 election cycle. The CSS Fund was created by Hilltop in 2009 to advance liberal health care proposals.
The Bullock campaign also mailed payments for an opposition research vendor to Hilltop’s office. Campaign finance disclosures show two payments to Eric Ohlsen, who heads the Democratic research firm Ohlsen Research.
Ohlsen’s relationship with Hilltop is not clear, but the metadata for the group’s website includes the phrase "Hilltop Public Solutions" and its website lists an office at Hilltop’s Potomac St. address. Ohlsen’s clients also include a group called Citizens for Strength and Security (distinct from the CSS Fund), which also has ties to Hilltop.
Citizens for Strength and Security came up in Bullock’s effort to undermine First Amendment protections for corporations and nonprofit groups. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) and John McCain (R., Ariz.) cited the group in a brief supporting Bullock’s argument to bolster their claim that disclosure requirements for independent expenditure groups "are inadequate."
Bullock was more forceful in his State of the State address.
"These groups believe they can violate our laws and corrupt our government in order to create a system that benefits their special interests," Bullock said. "Montanans deserve better."
However, Bullock himself appears to have supported the organization behind Citizens for Strength and Security and a host of other shadowy liberal groups.
None of the groups contacted for comment by the Washington Free Beacon responded, but the many links between them suggest Hilltop played a significant role in coordinating both independent and campaign-related activities that led to Bullock’s electoral victory.
A larger version of the graphic can be viewed here.
[Hilltop’s involvement in the Montana Senate race was documented in prior Washington Free Beacon coverage of the group. Additional information concerning its ties to the Foundation for Patient Rights can be found here.]