A Hilltop Too Far

Campaign finance reform advocate Gov. Steve Bullock accused of illegal campaign coordination

Steve Bullock / AP
March 19, 2013

One of the left’s most prominent campaign finance reform advocates has been accused of illegally coordinating with a host of liberal groups in the run up to winning a gubernatorial election last year.

Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has led the fight to undermine the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, which struck down efforts to regulate the political speech of nonprofit groups, corporations, and labor unions.

According to a complaint filed March 13 with Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Bullock’s gubernatorial campaign illegally coordinated with a host of independent expenditure groups through the shadowy Democratic consultancy Hilltop Public Solutions.

Hilltop was highly active in both the Montana governor’s race and last year’s Montana Senate race, in which Hilltop helped Sen. Jon Tester (D) win reelection.

Legal experts say Montana’s campaign finance laws are vague, but that the complaint may have enough merit to justify a more extensive investigation into the allegations.

"Given the breadth of Montana's definition of coordinated expenditures, there is enough for the commission to work with for an initial investigation," said Benjamin Barr, legal counsel for the Wyoming Liberty Group and a former special counsel for the Federal Election Commission.

Hilltop held a series of conference calls with Bullock’s campaign and subsequently coordinated independent expenditures for labor unions, environmentalist groups, and other left-wing organizations in support of the campaign, according to the complaint.

Additionally, the alleged coordination involves six different liberal advocacy groups; local, state, and national divisions of the Democratic Party; and five different vendors with ties to Hilltop.

"Given the inter-related activities of the participants through use of common vendors (Hilltop) and political affiliations it is difficult to comprehend how these parties maintained the separation necessary to avoid coordination of their campaign efforts," wrote Billings, Mont., resident James Scott Pennington, who filed the complaint on Friday.

Hilltop did not return an emailed request for comment.

"I feel that the only logical conclusion, based on the preceding law and evidence, is that coordination occurred between the governor and supporters during the 2012 election, and that a substantial penalty by your office is warranted," Pennington wrote.

Pennington says he was not active in politics before filing the complaint. He describes himself as a "concerned citizen."

He told the Washington Free Beacon that he solicited legal counsel to file the complaint but has not received any information from the commission beyond confirmation that the complaint was posted on its website.

He suggested that Bullock’s zealous campaign finance reform position is hypocritical. "You hear the rhetoric and you hear how they speak about it, as if it’s everybody else’s problem," he said.

Asked whether he thought the commission would act on the complaint, Pennington said, "it may get some traction, it may not."

Montana law defines an "independent expenditure" as "an expenditure for communications expressly advocating the success or defeat of a candidate or ballot issue which is not made with the cooperation or prior consent of or in consultation with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate or political committee or an agent of a candidate or political committee."

A "coordinated expenditure" under Montana law can be made in cooperation or consultation with a candidate or committee but must be reported as an in-kind contribution.

Pennington’s complaint alleges that Bullock’s work with Hilltop, its related vendors, and their clients amounted to coordinated expenditures but were not reported as such.

Barr, who also filed a brief in Citizens United, said an investigation would be needed to determine conclusively whether a violation took place.

"If it could be shown through an investigation, for example, that substantial discussions occurred about campaign advertising between agents of Bullock and other entities or that the candidate or his agent was materially involved in decisions about the content for advertising by third groups or timing, then there's a better chance for a finding of coordination," Barr said.

An investigation may take place, but the political practices commission must first give Bullock the opportunity to respond to the allegations. Respondents typically make their case to the commission within 20 to 30 days of the filing of a complaint, according to Mary Baker, the commission’s program supervisor.

After the commission receives the response, it will decide whether to dismiss the case, pursue an investigation, or prosecute the respondent immediately.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bullock spearheaded Montana’s effort to undermine Citizens United through a state law that prohibited corporations from spending money on political advertisements. Bullock defended the law as Montana’s attorney general before the United States Supreme Court, which eventually overturned it.

Bullock railed against the supposedly corrupting influence of free speech rights for corporations in his first State of the State address.

"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," Bullock said.

"Montanans deserve better," he added.

Bullock is an ally of his predecessor of Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), who is also vocally opposed to free speech rights for corporations.

Schweitzer also appointed Jim Murry, Montana’s current political practices commissioner.

Murry has been an advocate "for fair campaign practices laws," Schweitzer said after his appointment. Prior to his career in government, Murry was the executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, which runs one of the political groups that allegedly coordinated independent expenditures with the Bullock campaign.

Murry will recuse himself from the commission’s work on the complaint against Bullock due to the potential for a conflict of interest. Baker said deputy political practices commissioner Jay Dufrechou will adjudicate the case instead.