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A conversation with Montana-born 'Dark Money' documentarian Kimberly Reed

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Montana’s national reputation has long centered on grand mountain vistas, stoic farmers and ranchers and more than a few celebrity connections. But on Jan. 22, attendees at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival will be among the first to get a detailed look into one of our state’s more political—and sinister—chapters, as New York-based documentary filmmaker and Helena native Kimberly Reed debuts her latest film, Dark Money. What began as a chronicling of Montana’s legal challenge against the landmark campaign-finance case Citizens United now serves as an in-depth look at how a network of right-to-work organizations and corporate cash sought to swing numerous Republican legislative primaries, spearheaded by the notorious subject of a 2012 Frontline investigation: the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership.

With the film’s debut just days away—and a Montana premiere slated for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Feb. 16—the Indy spoke with Reed about her motivation for making the film, the challenges of conveying such a complex topic and how Montana became, as Reed puts it, the canary in the nation’s dark-money coal mine. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Independent: I’ll cut right to the chase: When did the issue of dark money in Montana politics come onto your radar?

Kimberly Reed: When the Citizens United decision came out in 2010, like a lot of Americans, I was really taken aback by it. You could just see how the influx of money in politics was going to become greater and greater and how money and power was going to be consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. So I’d been very interested in the issue of Citizens United and campaign finance reform, but it was in 2012 where I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Not only as a solution to Citizens United, but also, as a filmmaker, there was a way that I saw that I could tell a story that would engage the larger public in that conversation. With campaign-finance issues, everybody thinks they’re super important. But I think there’s a lot of frustration there. Everybody thinks it’s really important, but you can’t do anything about it because that’s just how they are. Everybody’s just on the take and these lobbyists control everything.

So when, in 2012, Montana has this case that could overturn it, I realized, wow, here’s a situation that is not only interesting at a national level just as a court case, but it’s also a good opportunity to make a film that is going to really animate and dramatize a lot of these issues that are typically really hard to animate and to dramatize. So I started following that story. I interviewed Attorney General Bullock at the time, went down to D.C. and filmed the [U.S. Supreme Court] verdicts as they were handed down, and when the summary reversal came out, I realized, you know what? This is a much bigger issue that’s not going to be resolved with this one court case, [this] is not a six-month film. It’s going to take years, and I’m going to have to follow these people on the ground in Montana and the dramatic clash that’s happening with these campaign finance issues.

Indy: What do you think made Montana such a flashpoint?

Reed: In 2010, everybody was talking about Super PACs. There was not a lot of talk about dark money groups. But Montana was one of the first states to really get hit by a concerted strategy by these corporations to run a shell game of dark money groups, and I realized that it wasn’t just Citizens United. It was really about dark money, which is ultimately just about the issue of disclosure, and I realized Montana was where all the flashpoints were. There was the same group of attorneys who were behind Citizens United who were also opening offices in Montana and running test cases up the flagpole, a bunch of them, a whole fleet of them.

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It was clear that there was this big offensive move on the part of these [dark money] folks, but it was also clear … that Montanans in general were really resisting this offensive push, that there was a rush-zone defense that was in place. And I think that was in large part because you talk to Montanans and they’ll tell you stories about Copper Kings and they drive through Butte and they see what the Berkeley Pit looks like and they see what the effect is of corporate control of politics. We have this living, breathing metaphor in the Berkeley Pit—and I should say maybe “dying,” with the photos of snow geese that land there. It was clear there was a dramatic clash of these two sides who had really different feelings about campaign finance, and I didn’t know exactly how it was going to come together and what was going to happen, but I could tell there was going to be a clash. So I started following that story. It was also clear that you couldn’t follow politics like most people follow politics, which is this horse race that lasts a couple months in the run-up to November. You really had to pay attention to primary elections, because that’s where a lot of these dark money groups operate. It’s not about winning the general election, it’s about selecting who’s going to be the candidate in the general election, especially when you’re talking about safe districts, which many districts in Montana are.

Indy: Sounds like a sprawling topic to cover, even just in one state. How did you go about narrowing the focus enough to encapsulate all this in one film?

Reed: It’s all about character. It’s all about finding human faces to talk about this issue instead of what you typically see, which is some bar graph of spending. You can only follow those numbers and facts and figures so long. I wanted to find the human drama. And I think we were successful in doing that because people take this stuff seriously in Montana. It makes for a really good canary in the coal mine, it makes a really good example, it makes a really good metaphor in a lot of ways for what’s happening in the rest of the country. The expression in Montana is [that] it’s one small town with really long streets. As Montanans, we can keep an eye on things and hold people accountable in a way that I think our democracy was originally constructed to operate. People take this stuff personally, and are offended in a way when they’re spun by politicians or manipulated by politicians. I can tell you from our test screenings alone, people are very inspired by seeing members of the general public stand up and oppose this type of corporate control of politics. It goes back to a really strong history of opposition to corporate control of politics and this sort of ever-present awareness of the impact that that can have.

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Former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl led the investigation into dark money’s influence in Montana elections.

Indy: Who were some of the characters you found that helped humanize the issue?

Reed: Some of the first folks I met were two Republican legislators, Rob Cook [R-Conrad] and Llew Jones [R-Conrad], who had been attacked by these groups and were standing up and really resisting the far-right wing of their own party in speaking out about the influence of this money in politics … They set their party politics aside, and that was really inspiring to me because we set out to make a very nonpartisan film, and I think we accomplished that. This is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is about dark money versus disclosure. So Rob and Llew are very influential in the Legislature because they are able to talk to both sides and to come up with reasonable solutions and compromise and all those words that used to be associated with politics up until a couple years ago, when it seems like everybody just decamped to their own tribe and stopped talking to the other side.

Jonathan Motl, the commissioner of political practices, and his dedication to these issues was another surprise. And I think a really important turning point for the film was when I met [journalist] John [S.] Adams and realized he was digging at these issues, and realized that he’d be a great—I wouldn’t call him a narrator, but I think he fulfills that function. We kind of see this world of campaign finance through his eyes in a lot of ways, and he carries us through this story.

Indy: How did you avoid getting too bogged down in the technical complexities of campaign finance?

Reed: Whenever you talk about campaign finance issues, it doesn’t take too long before you get lost in all these intricacies of rules and regulations, which can be kind of confusing. So the [film’s] editor, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, and I spent a lot of time sketching out the overall structure of the story so that we could figure out ways to basically teach people the rules of campaign finance without giving them lectures or big huge chunks of exposition. We had to find ways to, as it were, hide the medicine in the sugar. We were able to do that just by following these politicians and having them talk about what they’d been through.

It was really helpful when we interviewed journalists. Journalism and the role of the free press and challenges of free press that journalism in general is going through now is a very important strand of this film. It’s kind of personified by John Adams, but the way that that is personified is, we’re just trying to show that in order to follow money-in-politics issues, you really have to have an active, vigorous, watchdog press that’s keeping an eye on these issues … It’s key. By following John Adams, he took care of some of this exposition. We also talked to [former Lee state bureau reporter] Chuck Johnson, these folks who have been following campaign finance in the state for a long time. [Former Lee state bureau reporter] Mike Dennison. Lee newspapers shutting down the capital bureau actually becomes a plot point for us.

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Former state Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich was found guilty of violating campaign practice law in 2016.

Indy: Was there a moment when you realized the full scope of what you were dealing with in this film?

Reed: I knew it was a huge topic, and the challenge, obviously, was how do we distill this down into something that people can get their hands around. I think we had a pretty good film going on up through the midterms of 2014. I was following Jonathan Motl at the time and some of the cases he was chasing down. But when the case against [former state Senate Majority Leader] Art Wittich went to trial, I realized pretty quickly that this was going to be a pretty dramatic clash … that would bring a lot of the campaign finance issues that we were talking about in the film to a head.

Indy: A lot of Montanans saw all this close-up, through media coverage, and certainly in campaigns. What do you think viewers in the state will get out of the film beyond what we’ve already seen transpire here in real time?

Reed: First of all, it’s just going to be entertaining. It’s a good story, so I would like to think you could just sit back and enjoy the film. I think Montanans are also going to get a sense of pride out of this. As the canary in the coal mine, as the—as Sen. Tester often says—“tip of the spear” for these campaign finance issues … Montanans really got engaged on a civic level and resisted a lot of this. Montana has some of the strongest campaign finance laws in the country, and that surprises some people in a state that Trump won by 20 points … I think that will be one reaction, is this sense of pride.

A lot of times, making this film, I talked about Montana as the microcosm. Seeing how reforms and civic wins can happen at the state level is pretty inspiring, especially when you compare it to the macrocosm of Washington, D.C., where campaign finance enforcement is completely broken.

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Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, was one of several Republicans who pushed for campaign finance reform in Helena.

Indy: On the flipside, what do you think the rest of the country will get out of Dark Money?

Reed: I think that the people outside of Montana are going to be surprised. A lot of people say, ‘Who knew that could happen? Really, in Montana?’ Because they think it’s just an extension of Nebraska or something, they don’t quite know where it is and sort of think of it as this generic Midwest thing. I don’t think they understand the kind of independent, pioneering spirit that a lot of other states in the mountain West have, but especially Montana, and that there’s a particular resistance to having corporations or other moneyed interests taking over our politics.

And a sense of just hope that our political systems are not slipping out of our grasp, they’re not slipping into the hands of a couple people with a billion bucks and those are the only people that matter, those are the only people our politicians listen to. I hope that seeing our film gives folks in other states a sense of hope that they can take back their political systems, that they can rein in the influence of money in politics, that they can come up with solutions that will put power back into the hands of the 99 percent.

Indy: Circling back to the point of keeping the film nonpartisan, this is an issue that isn’t restricted to the Republican party. A lot of dark money has circulated on the left nationally as well. How much did that factor into the film?

Reed: The purview of our film is to focus on this [Montana] microcosm and tell this story within the constraints of that, so most of the focus was on that. We don’t tackle a lot of the national spending, Super PAC and dark money group spending at the national level. This is just kind of our decoder ring to help people dig into that more. I would say that for the majority of the time I was working on this film, it was looking like the role of this film was going to be to keep Hillary Clinton and that network of money honest … to make sure that money in politics didn’t get out of control under a Democratic administration. That is not how things turned out, as we know, so the role of that kind of shifted a little bit. But in general, I think it’s very important that we hold accountable both the political right and the political left, and I hope that our film can do that.

I also don’t want to slip into this false equivalency where we’re saying that both sides practice it equally, because I don’t think that’s true either. And when you talk about all these things, you kind of have to separate out the discussions at the state level where there’s a lot more Republican resistance to Citizens United and dark money spending in particular than there is at the national level. … We interview Trevor Potter, who’s a Republican former FEC chairman, former chief legal counsel for the McCain campaign, and I’m quoting him here in saying that Mitch McConnell has seen that unlimited spending, dark money spending, is a tool that gives them an advantage at the national level, and as such it needs to be exploited. But on a state level, it’s a different equation.

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Helena became a flashpoint in the nation’s dark money controversy less than a decade ago, but Montana’s former top political cop, Jonathan Motl, thinks the more insidious activity has been successfully curtailed.

Indy: You’re also a native Montanan. What added elements were there in working on a film like this in your home state?

Reed: I love Montana, and I think that love fuels a lot. I’m proud of Montana and where I’m from and the steps that were taken. Also, one of the most important things in making documentaries is access. Being from there, I don’t think that somebody who wasn’t from Montana would have had the same access that I did, just always one or two steps away from knowing who you need to know, talking to who you need to talk to. So I think that was important. I also knew we would have a really beautiful film, even if we were talking about all these complicated issues. It would still put people in a place that was really nice to be in. Also, it was just feasible. When I realized I was in this film for the long haul, it became important to be practical. There are not very many development grants for documentary film left. You used to be able to get funds to develop an issue or to engage in production on an issue, and that funding is getting harder and harder to find. So just at a practical level, I had a place to lay my head and borrow cars and stuff like that. It kept things feasible. It’s not the most romantic explanation, but it’s true.

Indy: I’m sure it also helped with wrapping your head around the historic backdrop of dark money.

Reed: Yeah, I mean, I learned about the Copper Kings in school. I had an understanding. When I talk about this film, people are surprised that Montana has really strong campaign finance laws. But I’m not. I understand why. And as such, I think I could see that this might be a good microcosm to study, and that the rest of the country would find interesting.


A brief guide to Montana’s dark money past

The legacy of corporate influence in Montana politics stretches back more than a century, to the wild days of metal mining, when the Copper Kings purchased legislative influence like it was a Black Friday special at Walmart. Citizens managed to beat those moneyed interests back throughout the bulk of the 20th century, but the past decade saw it creep back to prominence, sparking a bitter battle that culminated, policy-wise, in the 2015 passage of Montana’s Disclose Act.

For those who may not recall what Montana’s dark money fuss was all about, it began in 2008 with the registration of a Colorado-based nonprofit called Western Tradition Partnership, founded with the help of former Montana congressman Ron Marlenee to combat what the partnership called the “radical environmentalist agenda.” Throughout that year’s Republican primaries, WTP’s name appeared on attack mailers targeting moderate Republicans in several legislative races, generating campaign practice complaints and questions about how much the nonprofit was spending and where that money was coming from. The pattern repeated and picked up steam in the 2010 primary season, prompting another flurry of complaints. Among them was one filed by Debra Bonogofsky, a Republican state House candidate in Billings, alleging that WTP had violated state law by failing to file finance reports disclosing the source of the funding it used to attack her.

“In the case of Western Tradition Partnership, we don’t know where their money came from,” then-Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth told the Indy in late 2010. “We, and voters, have no idea how much was spent, where the money came from, where they spent it.”

WTP remained an enigma until a series of breakthroughs in 2012. A joint investigation by PBS’ Frontline and the nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica revealed a trove of checks and other documents suggesting that WTP had illegally coordinated with numerous Republican legislative candidates, offering a suite of campaign services referred to as “the works.” The national investigation also revealed the existence of boxes of material recovered in Denver: the now-infamous “Colorado meth house documents.”

In November 2012, headlines across the state carried the news of a break-in at the Commissioner of Political Practices office. Officials speculated that the meth house documents were the perpetrator’s intended target, and the FBI swooped in to seize the evidence, spiriting it away to its Missoula office. But according to then- Commissioner Jonathan Motl, the agents missed a file, one that contained information relevant to the 2010 campaign of Belgrade Republican Ron Murray. Motl still remembers the discovery of that file as a critical point in his office’s investigation of WTP’s campaign activity.

“Without even seeing the rest of the Colorado documents, I could then see that there was something serious going on,” Motl says. “That document inspired me to go over and sit in the FBI office in Missoula, where I went through all of the Colorado documents and was able to identify nine candidates who got that sort of assistance from what I thought then was Western Tradition Partnership. It turned out that that was just a shell group for [the anti-labor organization] National Right to Work.”

Using the Colorado documents and others, Motl and his team were able to connect the dots between several organizations and candidates, ultimately issuing decisions against nine legislative candidates who had engaged WTP’s services. One of those decisions resulted in the prosecution of then-former state Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich—and it was in the course of that prosecution that Motl stumbled across his investigation’s second-biggest revelation: a summary, uncovered by attorney Gene Jarussi, outlining “the works.” It confirmed, in the organization’s own words, everything that Motl had deduced from his investigation: that WTP conducted its services in coordination with and on behalf of Republican primary campaigns.

The civil action against Wittich was both the culmination and climax of Montana’s dark money years, and left an indelible mark not only on Motl, but on Jarussi, a Billings attorney with 40 years’ experience who came out of retirement to work the case as a deputy attorney general. Along with his wife, Karen, Jarussi toiled day and night to craft a case against Wittich. Jarussi recalls the almost detective-fiction way in which the trail took shape, with the random discovery of a former Right to Work staffer’s name in a citizen blog post leading to one informant after another.

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Among the trove of documents uncovered in Montana’s dark money investigation were so-called wife letters, mailers produced by WTP on behalf of candidates’ wives.

The night before a morning flight to Seattle to secure affidavits from former Right to Work staffers Andrew O’Neill and Nolan Green, Jarussi wound up in the hospital with diverticulitis. He made the flight, but had to borrow the laptop of a Hilton Hotel employee in Seattle to type up the affidavits. Yet, for Jarussi, the case’s most memorable moment came in the courtroom in Anaconda, when former Big Timber Rep. John Esp took the stand. He spoke of the personal impact of WTP’s attacks against him, and how that activity discouraged him from seeking reelection in 2012.

“I used that in closing argument,” Jarussi says. “I said, whether you would vote for John Esp or not, that’s your choice. But all of us citizens lose when people like John Esp won’t run.”

Wittich’s attorneys battled hard in court, portraying the Bozeman politician as a committed public servant and arguing that he’d paid for and properly disclosed all the services provided to his 2010 campaign. But both Motl and Jarussi say there was never an instant when they felt their case was lost. They won, Jarussi says, “witness after witness, document after document,” and in the end, the jury ruled against Wittich on a 10-2 vote. Wittich appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling last fall.

“When we say ‘quid pro quo,’ what does that mean? It’s exactly this,” says John Heenan, Jarussi’s law partner and fellow deputy attorney general on the Wittich case, now running as a Democrat for Montana’s congressional seat. “Groups like this are getting people elected with an explicit exchange: ‘We’ll get you into office and once you’re there, you do what we tell you.’”

The more traditional brand of dark money still exists, with politically active nonprofits working on the periphery of campaigns without having to disclose their donors. But Motl believes that the type of direct coordination that plagued so many recent election cycles seems to have ended, or at least been paused. Still, it’s an important issue to keep in the public eye, which is why Motl was so willing to talk to reporters—and filmmakers—during his tenure as commissioner.

“Football gets a lot of ink, right?” he says. “Campaign finance and the morality and community standards in politics doesn’t get as much ink. So if you get a chance to talk about something that is really more important to the people of Montana than football is, you should take it.”

—Alex Sakariassen

Staff Reporter

Alex Sakariassen began working at the Indy in early 2009. He primarily reports on state politics, the environment and the craft beer industry. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Choteau Acantha and Britain’s Brewery History Journal.

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