A film that’s showing in select cities across the country, including this week in 4 Montana cities, documents how undisclosed political campaign contributions, attack mailers against targeted candidates and secret documents have infiltrated our political campaigns.
While this sounds like Russian interference in the 2016 elections, it's a Montana case study on what’s now known as “Dark Money.”
The floodgates opened after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling commonly known as Citizens United dismantled decades of campaign finance laws. That allowed money to flow, often in secret, to certain political organizations.
So the film “Dark Money” sets off and used as a roadmap what’s become a familiar refrain:
FILM TRAILER: You know the number one rule of watchdog or political reporting is follow the money. (MUSIC fades)
Montana-based investigative reporter John Adams is among the people filmmaker Kim Reed used to put a “face” on volumes of Excel spreadsheets, emails and documents on the money trail, “from that point on, the challenge of the film was just sort of to hold on and follow this mystery as it’s unfolding.”
FILM TRAILER: Campaign finance is the gateway to every other issue that you might care about. Americans are barraged by these political advertisements that are funded by who knows whom. We don’t even know if they’re domestic. (MUSIC fades)
And that’s what Billings-attorney Gene Jarussi was tasked to find out. He came out of retirement and became a special attorney general to examine whether candidates violated Montana’s campaign finance laws. And if there was a case, prosecute them on behalf of then-Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.
Jarussi said after examining over 70,000 documents, he concluded Montana was among the states targeted by the National Right to Work group.
“Stop me if I’m getting a little bit far afield, but I think all of us understand that a person runs for the legislature in Montana, they’re elected and they fully expect when they’re serving in Helena to have a lobbyist for some group come up and ask them to support or not support a certain bill,” he said.
“But in 2010 what the National Right to Work did was come into this state and just decided we’re not going to lobby anybody we’re going to pick our candidates, get our candidates elected, then we don’t have to lobby anything,” he said. “They’re our candidates.”
What the group wanted: laws that prohibited forced union membership and payment of union dues as a condition of employment.
The film shows Jarussi in the case against former Senate Majority leader Art Wittich. The Bozeman Republican was accused of illegally benefitting from corporate contributions and services from groups tied to the National Right to Work Committee.
A jury found Wittich guilty in 2016; on appeal, the verdict was upheld by the Montana Supreme Court last August. In all lawsuits were filed against 9 Republicans, some former or current legislators:
- Mike Miller
- Scott Sales
- Joel Boniek
- Wes Prouse
- Dan Kennedy
- Pat Wagman
- Art Wittich
- Terry Bannan
- Ron Murry
all but one of the cases have been settled. The case against Terry Bannan, a former legislative candidate from Gallatin County, is set to go to trial this fall.
Filmmaker Kim Reed said the unfolding of events that took place in Montana post-Citizens United are a case study of how these groups operate.
“I started working on the film in 2012 and followed 3 elections cycles in ’12, ’14 and ’16 and now that we’re up on ’18 the same pattern that I personally observed is just abundantly clear,” she said.
Reed says while some of the specifics may shift a little bit, there’s no question that every election cycle we’re seeing more and more money spent, “that every election we’re seeing that ‘dark money’ loophole be exploited more and more efficiently and more and more brazenly each time around.”
Reed, a Montana-native, is scheduled to appear at some of the screenings with a few of the subjects of the film during its viewing in Billings, Bozeman, Helena, and Missoula.
PBS is also schedule show the film this fall, before the mid-term elections.