Montana-tied Dark Money Firm Expands to Colorado

Aaron Flint posted on April 16, 2013 14:45 :: 11350 Views

Per Politico, a dark money group with Montana ties is now expanding to Colorado.

Tuesday’s Politico Playbook has this:

HILLTOP OPENS COLORADO OFFICE – Mo Elleithee of Hilltop Public Solutions emails: “Craig Hughes … Hilltop’s newest Partner … will bring his tremendous talents to Hilltop’s growing Western political and public affairs practices as he opens up our new Colorado office. … Craig … served as Senior Advisor to the 2012 Obama re-election campaign in Colorado. … [H]e managed Senator Michael Bennet’s successful election in 2010 and advised President Obama’s 2008 Colorado campaign. Craig’s career in politics dates back to 1991 and includes time as Eastern Political Director in the Clinton White House.”


James Pennington of Billings, MT has filed a formal ethics complaint against Gov. Bullock with the Commissioner of Political Practices. The complaint, 277 pages long, alleges Gov. Bullock violated Montana Campaign Finance laws by illegally coordinating between third parties and the campaign. The entire report can be read at the link above and portions are outlined below:

Dear Commissioner Murray,

I am submitting a formal complaint to your office that Steve Bullock, his campaign, and third-party groups violated Montana Campaign Finance laws. I believe in many instances these violations appear intentional and contrived to circumvent requirements of disclosure laws. Consequently, I feel Montana voters were deprived of important, and legally required, information. While this election revealed a new era of political spending, it did not eliminate regulatory safeguards such as disclosure. It did not eliminate prohibitions on coordination between candidates, their agens, and supposed independent spending committees

Steve Bullock, the Montana Democratic Party, Montana Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood of Montana, MT AFL-CIO/Build Montana PAC, MT-JET PAC, and others all used the services and employees of Hilltop Public Solutions, or its affiliates, or other vendors, to coordinate, manage, design and distribute campaign material to influence the results of the 2012 Montana gubernatorial election. All persons identified here are obviously politically sophisticated. They certainly have resources readily available to either abide by the law or circumvent it. I believe their acts exemplify a lack of candor fron individuals now purporting to champion the cause of campaign finance report and full public disclosure.

The major parties named by Mr. Pennington are extensive:

  • Friends of Steve Bullock-Bullock for Gov. (Steve Bullock, Kevin O’Brien, Melanie Brock, Eric Ohlsen)
  • Build Montana PAC, MT-AFL-CIO, MEA-MFT (Chris Cavazos)
  • MEA-MFT COPE (Eric Burke, Build MT PAC Contributor, Element Design IE)
  • Montana Jobs, Education and Technology PAC (Ed Logan, Mike Lamb, Harper Lawson)
  • Montana Conservation Voters-MCV Action Fund (Committee of MCV Board, Julia Page, Theresa Keaveney)
  • Planned Parenthood Advocacy of MT (Suzi Kopec, Stay Anderson, Molly Bell, Libby Smelker)
  • Democratic Governors Assoc. of MT (Benjamin Metcalf)
  • Montana Democratic Party (Jim Elliot)
  • Big Sky Democrats (Anna O’Brein, Kevin O’Brein, Molly Bell, Melanie Brock)
  • Forward Montana Board (Molly Bell, Aaron Browning, Chris Cavazos)

Mr. Pennington also names political consultants:

  • Hilltop Public Solutions (Barrett Kaiser, Mo Elleeithee, Molly Bell, Marco Guido, Eric Ohlsen, Libby Smelker)
  • Three Point Media (Mo Elleeithee)
  • Brushfire Strategies (Marco Guido)
  • Greenlight Median Strategies (Hilltop’s NY Address)

The substance of Mr. Pennington’s accusation centers around Hilltop Public Solutions, a Washington, D.C. political consulting firm. He notes the interrelated individuals and groups and concludes that there could not have been a separation necessary to meet Montana Campaign Finance laws. He states:

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 their campaign efforts. A communication is coordinated if made in cooperation, consultation, or in concert with, or at the request of suggest of the candiate, his campaign, or an agent. Due to the interrelationships and interactions with Hilltop and others, the Governor’s campaign and these groups allowed Hilltop to acquire vital information about each campaign’s plans, projects, activities and needs. Hilltop, and other other vendors, were able to use that vital information in creating materials, production and distribution of campaign communications for each respective client’s campaign.

If these allegations are true, what does that make of Gov. Bullocks transparency in campaigns legislation he just introduced last week?

With his boss’ closely watched 2012 re-election in the bag, a top aide to Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has taken a job with a political consulting firm with ties to several dark money groups, as The Washington Free Beacon reports: 

Hilltop Public Solutions, which has refused to answer questions about its ties to a number of liberal political groups, will hire Aaron Murphy, a long-time Tester staffer and his 2012 campaign’s communications director, according to an emailed statement from Hilltop partner Barrett Kaiser.

The move deepens the consultancy’s ties to the sitting Montana senator. Hilltop actively engaged in Tester’s reelection fight through a handful of AstroTurf groups. Kaiser himself filed Federal Election Commission paperwork for Montana Hunters and Anglers Action!, the activist arm of a group credited with tipping the race in Tester’s favor by backing a spoiler Libertarian candidate.

This is a strong pickup for Hilltop who will no doubt be gearing up to defend Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) in 2014.  Murphy is very skilled at his job, and previously served as Executive Producer at KTVQ-TV in Billings, so he has several ties with the Montana media. 

Hilltop, of course, is a firm which has been questioned by the Montana media in the recent past.  When Lee Newspaper’s reporter Mike Dennison attempted to interview the firm regarding a secretive half million dollar donation from the pharmaceutical drug industry, both Hilltop consultants Jessie Bradley and Barrett Kaiser (longtime Montana politico and aide to Senator Max Baucus) did not reply. 

The move may also trigger criticism from Republican activists over potential collaboration between the Senator’s campaign and third party groups. This, as the conservative group American Traditions Partnership (ATP) is also under fire, as liberal activists charge potential collaboration by ATP with candidates.    

You may recall this National Journal article from October 9th, which noted what appeared to be a coordinated same day attack on Tester’s opponent

On Friday, Tester’s campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Majority PAC all went up with new television ads attacking Rehberg for suing the Billings fire department over a fire at his ranch. And for good measure, the DSCC followed up Monday with a second ad hammering on the same topic.

Meanwhile, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has been under fire for weeks for all the corporate goodies in the fiscal cliff deal.  Most recently, The New York Times has been hammering him for a special deal given to Rx giant Amgen. 

In fact, former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) is calling out Senator Baucus by name, alleging corruption.

As Jon Walker writes for the liberal blog, Firedoglake:

It is highly unusual for a former senator to target a fellow member of their party in such direct manner. Especially when that senator is up for re-election soon and potentially could face a very tough primary and/or general election.

This language should definitely hit a nerve with the Baucus camp because he significantly damaged his favorable numbers thanks to his role in drafting the Affordable Care Act.

In a column last week, Lee Newspaper reporter Mike Dennison asked, “So why is the pharmaceutical-drug lobby handing out $500,000 to a political group called “Montana Growth,” whose office is nowhere near Montana?”

Well, maybe we can help fill in the missing pages from his reporter’s notebook.

The story begins with a comical incident of friendly fire (the Republicans may refer to it as a “red-on-red incident”) between the liberal blogs and Democratic activists in Montana.  After The Center for Public Integrity first reported the $500,000 contribution to a group called “Montana Growth,” an anonymous liberal blog in Montana (believed to be run by staffers to the Democratic Governor) went with the assertion that newly elected Supreme Court Justice Laurie McKinnon benefitted from 500 grand in prescription drug company money.  Once it was corrected by The Center for Public Integrity, the liberal blogs and activists quickly went silent on that story.   

Why?  Well, that takes us back to Dennison’s column where he asks why the Rx industry would give money to a Montana political group in the first place.  Dennison’s column makes no mention of what should be plainly obvious to any remote political observer in Montana:  Senator Max Baucus (D-MT).

Senator Baucus is chairman of the powerful US Senate Finance Committee.  His former Chief of Staff managed President Barack Obama’s campaign and personally brokered a deal with the pharmaceutical industry to garner their support for Obamacare.  In return, the pharmaceutical industry funded a $150 million ad campaign on behalf of Obamacare, which was authored in large part by Baucus’ staff.  Another former Baucus staffer was also under fire last week by The Huffington Post for ties to the pharmaceutical drug industry, after Liz Fowler was reported to leave the White House for another posh gig in the industry.  (She also helped draft Obamacare, and, as Bob Brigham reminds me- she helped draft Medicare Part D before previously jumping ship to the Rx industry)      

The Huffington Post piece also noted:

When it comes to health care, and health lobbyists, Baucus isn’t just any senator. Since 1998, he has collected more than $5.1 million in campaign contributions from the insurance, pharmaceutical and nursing industries, making him one of the health care sector’s most heavily backed lawmakers.

So, getting back to Dennison’s question-  why would the drug companies funnel all this money into a Montana political group?  The answer: the firm receiving the money is run by a longtime Baucus staffer (Barrett Kaiser) who also happens to be friends with Jim Messina, and is a former colleague to Liz Fowler.  Kaiser’s firm is the same firm that also supported Senator Jon Tester’s (D-MT) re-election effort and funded $500K in TV ads on behalf of the libertarian candidate in the race.   As The Center for Public Integrity clarified in their updated report:

The Center was able to track down the recipient of the funds by tracing a federal identification number that showed that “Montana Growth” was formerly known as “Economy Forward.” Records indicate its directors are Jessica Bradley and Carrie Schuyler of the Democratic-aligned public relations firm Hilltop Public Solutions, which has offices in D.C., New York and Billings, Mont.

As The Montana Watchdog’s Dustin Hurst shared via Twitter, Tester is number three when it comes to incoming lawmakers who benefitted from “dark money.”

The whole incident was summed up best by State Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge) and his hilarious response to the charge that he accepted $500,000 in contributions from the Rx industry as the head of The Montana Growth Network:

“I’ve never raised a dime from a pharmaceutical company,” said Republican state Sen. Jason Priest, a board member and former executive director of the Montana Growth Network, which produced radio advertisements and mailings during the election.

“Guys like PhRMA, they want more government,” he said. “They want all this ‘Obamacare’ stuff, all these health care exchanges, the expansion of Medicaid and things that I don’t like.”

Gov. Steve Bullock is apparently refusing to comment on a story which suggests illegal coordination between his campaign and a dark money group which was behind third party campaign commercials.  Similar allegations have been levelled against the right-leaning American Traditions Partnership (ATP) group, and then reported on as such by nearly every other media outlet in the state of Montana.

So far, The Great Falls Tribune’s John Adams appears to be the first of the Capital press corps in Helena to actually query Gov Steve Bullock’s office:

Kevin O’Brien, who ran Bullock’s 2012 campaign and now serves as Bullock’s deputy chief of staff, issued the following statement when asked about the Media Trackers report:

“We don’t comment every time a dark-money group, masquerading as a media outlet, levels unsubstantiated and misleading accusations.”

Illegal Coordination from Gov’s Campaign?

The involvement of a Democratic dark money group in helping the re-election effort of Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) has been well noted (link here, and another link here).

However, now Montana Media Trackers has unveiled some new information that may suggest illegal coordination between newly elected Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) and that same dark money group.

In the weeks and months leading up to the 2012 election, Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign held several conference calls with a political consulting firm that managed independent expenditures for several PACs involved in the gubernatorial race, raising questions about possible illegal coordination between the firm and Bullock’s campaign.

The governor’s campaign listed expenditures for conference calls on June 20, July 25, and October 20, 2012, as well as payment for travel expenses on February 16 and October 20, 2012, towards S&B Public Solutions, which according to business registration records with the District of Columbia, is the official registered name for Hilltop Public Solutions.

Bullock Declines Comment on Illegal Coordination Story

Drug Money Actually Went to Baucus Camp

Tester Aide Joins Dark Money Group

Formal Ethics Complaint Leveled Against Bullock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *