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Free Market Group Sues Bullock Over 'Dark Money' Rule

"Issue advocacy" mailers from the 2012 Montana elections.
"Issue advocacy" mailers from the 2012 Montana elections.

An Illinois advocacy group is suing Montana Gov. Steve Bullock over one of his trademark campaign finance policies targeting so-called 'dark money' in politics.

The lawsuit announced Wednesday asks a federal judge to strike down Montana’s nearly year-old policy that requires certain businesses seeking contracts with the state to disclose donors and spending on elections.

The filing in U.S. District Court in Montana says Illinois Opportunity Project plans to send thousands of mailers to Montana voters in the final months of the state’s 2020 race for governor.

"This case is about the First Amendment," says Daniel Suhr, an attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, which is representing Illinois Opportunity Project in the case.

On it's website, the group says it promotes policies advancing "free markets and free minds." In its legal filing the group wrote that it hopes to urge Montana candidates not to support campaign finance policies like those of Gov. Bullock.

"This nation has a long and proud history, stretching all the way back to the founding fathers and The Federalist Papers, of people engaging in the public square based on their ideas and the power of their ideas. Not based on their name or who is paying for it or publishing it, but based on the strength of the ideas themselves."

Suhr is talking about anonymous advocacy or spending in politics; what some others, like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock refer to as 'dark money.'

"If folks want to try to buy our elections, Montanans expect that we at least know who is doing the buying," Bullock says.

Bullock has built much of his political identity as a campaign finance reformer, first as Montana’s attorney general and governor, and now as a presidential candidate.

The executive order he signed in June 2018 makes state agencies require potential contractors who sell more than $25,000 in services or $50,000 worth of goods to disclose money given to candidates, political parties or other groups paying for electioneering communication.

Advocates for campaign finance transparency praised the order for pushing Montana’s policy a step further than most other states.

"This is just some out of state, actually, dark money group, that wants to sue us and we don’t even know who funds them," Bullock says.

The lawsuit this week says Bullock’s order requiring certain government contractors to reveal their political spending violates free speech and privacy rights.

The Liberty Justice Center’s Daniel Suhr says political donors could be harassed or retaliated against because of their support for certain issues, and that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects anonymous issue advocacy.

The court filing argues that if Bullock’s Executive Order remains state policy the Illinois group will "chill its own speech and not engage in its desired communication."

The case has been assigned to Judge Charles Lovell. A hearing has not yet been set.

According to the Governor’s Office, Bullock’s executive order apples to an estimated 500-600 state contracts a year.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.