by Kim Barker, ProPublica, and Rick Young and Emma Schwartz, FrontlineThis story was co-published with PBS Frontline.
But unlike donors to political committees, the names of those who gave to Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP, were never supposed to be made public.
That changed Friday after a Montana district court judge released the social welfare nonprofit’s bank records at the request of Frontline and ProPublica, saying citizens had a right to know.
It was the first time that a court has ordered a modern dark money group’s donors to be made public, firing a warning shot to similar organizations engaged in politics.
The WTP bank records, which cover a period from March 2008 to December 2010, show that the group raised almost $1.1 million from other social welfare nonprofits, corporations, a political committee and individuals. It received $650,000 from the nonprofits, $70,000 from an Oklahoma businessman and his company and $50,000 from a Colorado homebuilder. Most WTP contributors, however, gave on a smaller scale: 495 of the group’s 607 donations were for $100 or less.
The total amount raised by WTP, now known as American Tradition Partnership, was not large, compared to the tens of millions of dollars dark money groups like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity have collected in the 2012 election cycle.
But the details available on WTP, which has worked to elect conservatives in Montana and Colorado and has won national attention for a lawsuit that led the Supreme Court to apply its Citizens United ruling to states, are striking.
The bank records highlight WTP’s ties to groups backing libertarian Ron Paul. The Conservative Action League, a Virginia social welfare nonprofit run at the time in part by John Tate, most recently Paul’s campaign manager, transferred $40,000 to WTP in August 2008, bank records show. Tate was also a consultant for WTP. In addition, WTP gave $5,000 to a group called the SD Campaign for Liberty, affiliated with Paul and the national Campaign for Liberty.
The bank records also illustrate how cash passes between dark money groups, further obscuring its original source: $500,000 passed from Coloradans for Economic Growth to WTP to the National Right to Work Committee, over a few days in October 2008. Coloradans for Economic Growth and the National Right to Work Committee are social welfare nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors. Tate and others paid by WTP were also once associated with National Right to Work.
WTP’s biggest donation that wasn’t simply a pass-through, for $110,000, was from the Spur Education Fund, an obscure nonprofit with no website, about which little information is available. Incorporated in June 2010, out of the same Denver law firm address as Coloradans for Economic Growth, the fund transferred money to WTP four times between July and September 2010.
Scott Shires, the man who incorporated WTP in Colorado in 2008, appeared to have signed off on one of those contributions, raising questions about whether WTP was also affiliated with Spur. A handwritten note on a transfer document for $40,000 from Spur, dated Sept. 2, 2010, said: “Deposit into Western Tradition Partnership acct ending 5610 as per Scott Shires phone request.”
Shires, who says he has been the public face of about 600 committees over the past 20 years, has maintained he had very little involvement with WTP. On Sunday, he said he wrote some checks for the Spur Education Fund but didn’t remember anything else.
Social welfare nonprofits, unlike super PACs, are allowed to keep their donors secret. Although they can spend money on politics, their primary purpose is supposed to be social welfare, or helping the community at large. ProPublica has written extensively about how some of these groups exploit gaps between election authorities and the Internal Revenue Service, the regulatory agency for social welfare nonprofits, to spend millions of anonymous dollars on political campaigns.
In an article last month, ProPublica and Frontline described how WTP may have misled the IRS in its initial application for recognition. The bank records we obtained raise new questions, showing no money came in from the man WTP claimed as its primary donor when it asked the IRS to expedite the approval of its application. The bank records also indicate the group raised enough money to require it to file tax returns for 2009 and 2010, yet the IRS has no record of tax returns for WTP after 2008.
The records also raise more questions about potential coordination between candidates and WTP. Candidates, who have strict contribution limits, are not allowed to coordinate with outside spending groups like WTP, which can raise unlimited amounts of money.
The bank records show that Allison LeFer, the wife of former WTP official Christian LeFer, signed almost all WTP’s checks.