HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A politically active nonprofit group tied to two appointees of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer shared the governor's campaign address and received contributions from an organization that Schweitzer was involved in, even as the governor was bashing other such nonprofits for hiding from state disclosure laws.
The same post office box address is listed on Schweitzer's website as he considers a run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. If he gets in the race, Schweitzer would be considered the Democrats' best chance of keeping the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Max Baucus.
The group, called the Council for a Sustainable America, shut down in early 2010 and transferred $306,669 to a Washington, D.C.-based organization called the American Sustainability Project at about the same time as backlash increased in Montana against politically active groups registering as nonprofits with the Internal Revenue Service.
The Council for a Sustainable America testified to the IRS that it spent about $60,000 on politics in 2010, such as conducting "opinion polls of the electorate to determine voter opinion on sustainable energy," according to the form circulated Tuesday by the Montana Republican Party.
The group's termination filing with the IRS was signed off in August 2011 by its treasurer, Helena attorney Dave Gallik, who at the time was serving as Schweitzer's commissioner of political practice, an appointed position charged with policing campaign regulations. No other officers or members were listed on the document.
Neither Gallik nor Franklin Hall, a Schweitzer adviser who returned a call made to the former governor's cellphone, could tell The Associated Press just what the group did or what it spent its money on. Hall said the nonprofit was never used for Montana politics or to aid Schweitzer.
The Council for a Sustainable America received a $335,000 contribution from the Democratic Governors Association in 2009, according to disclosure forms, at the same time Schweitzer was the DGA chairman. The document was published by the conservative website Mediatrackers.org.
The Helena-based organization gave Global Strategy Group more than $90,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Schweitzer is listed as a client of Global Strategy Group.
Online IRS reports show the American Sustainability Project, the Washington group that received the Council for a Sustainable America's $306,000 when it shut down, moved from Washington to Helena in 2012 — also to the same post office box that is listed for Schweitzer's campaign.
It is unclear from the IRS documents the purpose of either group or for which elections it spent money. Schweitzer was not a candidate for office in 2010 and he could not run for governor again in 2012 because of term limits.
Backlash against anonymous organizations spending money to influence Montana elections helped fuel a successful 2012 state ballot measure asking lawmakers to do what they can to overturn that decision. Schweitzer himself once mocked a secretive, politically active conservative nonprofit during a pre-election rally as a "criminal organization."
"They live in a post office box," he said at the rally.
Republicans this week immediately criticizing the Council For a Sustainable America and the American Sustainability Project as "dark money" groups.
Hall resisted the notion.
"Dark money? I don't know how you define that," he said.
Hall said the Council for a Sustainable America was "one of many" groups he consulted for prior to formally joining the governor's office in 2010. His tenure ended in January when Schweitzer left office.
The post office box is Hall's personal address and is on his driver's license, he said. He volunteered it to Schweitzer's 2008 campaign because the campaign needed a mailing address as it winded down, he said.
"My personal P.O. Box is the only connection between the governor's campaign and an organization that had shut down two years before," Hall said.
Hall said he didn't know "exactly what" the council spent the $60,000 in political money doing.
"The point is that these entities were not ever engaged in Montana elections," Hall said.
Hall said the American Sustainability Project was a "social welfare" organization that never engaged in politics. He could not explain why the American Sustainability Project listed its new 2012 address as Hall's and the Schweitzer campaign's post office box.
"I don't know why that address is there. I can't speak to it," Hall said.
That group lists a Louisiana lawyer as a principal officer, Conrad Williams III. He did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment.
Gallik said that as an attorney for the first group, the Council For a Sustainable America, he could not disclose more due to confidentiality values.
"I don't know. But even if I did know I couldn't go there," he said in a late Tuesday interview.
Democrats, perhaps seeking to retain the high ground on the "dark money" issue, sent out an email Wednesday morning criticizing against U.S. Rep. Steve Daines for taking a $10,000 donation disclosed in recent filings from the conservative group Citizens United. That organization's successful case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that freed up campaign spending and ultimately was used to strike Montana's century-old citizen's initiative banning some corporate contributions.
Daines' office pointed out the donation came from a registered political group and was disclosed as required with election officials, and is a lot different than anonymous "dark money."