The O. Zone

Group behind attack ads of Snowmass senator back in the news

Probe into Colorado secretary of state's spending pulls GOP group out of the shadows

By David O. Williams
Real AspenNovember 6, 2012

The same group that infamously attacked state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village with negative ads in 2010 is back in the news — once again, under dubious circumstances.

Western Tradition Partnership, now known as American Tradition Partnership, is suspected of misleading the Internal Revenue Service when it registered in Montana as a social-welfare nonprofit because it allegedly was coordinating with candidates and campaigning for particular candidates and issues, according to a joint ProPublica and PBS Frontline investigation.

The incident came to light now that Colorado's secretary of state, Scott Gessler, is under criminal investigation for misusing public funds. Here's the back story: On Election Day two years ago, Colorado voters bucked national Tea Party trends and elected a Democratic governor and U.S. senator. But, almost as a consolation prize, Coloradans picked a lot of Republicans for down-ballot offices like treasurer and secretary of state.

The SOS position went to Gessler, a former conservative election lawyer, which is essentially to say voters handed over the henhouse to the fox. Two years of nothing but controversy ensued, and now the fallout is fully beginning to be felt with the Denver district attorney on Monday opening an investigation into Gessler on the same day the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission voted to look into Gessler’s use of state money to attend a partisan political event.

On Election Day 2012 there is a growing sense of disgust among voters in swing states like Colorado, where millions of dollars of so-called “dark money” from super PACs and “social welfare group” have been pumped into wave after wave of hyper-negative campaign ads. The donors behind such groups enjoy secrecy in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and clearly people on both sides of the political aisle are losing faith in our entire “Democratic” process. Corporations, more than ever, seem to be picking our leaders.

But back to Gessler. His former Denver law firm, the one he actually wanted to continue to work for while serving as secretary of state, has been driving the steady erosion of campaign transparency and election ethics for years, including registering a social welfare group that has become the poster child for all that’s wrong with our political system.

During that same 2010 election, state Sen. Schwartz — a Democrat who represents Aspen, Snowmass and, now, the Vail Valley after redistricting — was the target of some of the nastiest ads in what was a particularly bitter mid-term election. The ads were produced by Western Tradition Partnership

That same group, originally registered by Republican political operative Scott Shires of Aurora, was later re-registered by Gessler’s old law firm, Hackstaff Gessler. The ensuing controversy led to calls for tougher state campaign transparency laws.

Western Tradition Partnership, aka American Tradition Partnership, was instrumental in striking down a century-old Montana election law meant to curtail the influence of the mining and railroad industries in local elections. That law was thrown out in the wake of Citizens United, largely because of the legal maneuvering of American Tradition Partnership (ATP).

The group also became the target of an investigation by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices for questionable campaign mailers in state legislative races. All the while the group continued to beat the drum for big oil and against environmental “extremism,” even as ExxonMobil fouled the Yellowstone River in 2011.

But now it appears that ATP may have misled the Internal Revenue Service when it registered in Montana as a social-welfare nonprofit because it allegedly was coordinating with candidates and campaigning for particular candidates and issues, according to a joint ProPublica and PBS Frontline investigation.

A Montana judge on Friday ordered many of ATP’s documents to be made public, including lists of donors. Now ATP, which started in Colorado and has Gessler’s fingerprints all over it, should be looked into more closely in this state. And hopefully, state lawmakers will once again consider legislation to start cleaning up some of the mess the U.S. Supreme Court has made.

However you feel about climate change, the environment and Schwartz's advocacy for renewable energy, voters on the Western Slope don't like millions of dollars from undisclosed outside groups (ATP actually offices in suburban Virginia) attempting to influence our local and statewide elections.

If nothing else, maybe courts releasing lists of donors will help to curtail some of the dark money currently fouling the American political process. And perhaps Colorado voters will be a little wiser next time they pick a secretary of state.

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