Wal-Mart populism

Dallas Erickson for years contended that his Ravalli County Citizens for Free Enterprise (RCCFE) was a grassroots group. But a complaint lodged in 2006 with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices alleged otherwise, claiming the group was a front for Wal-Mart, which aimed to set up shop near Hamilton despite local resistance.

Now, Wal-Mart has paid to settle the complaint.

"The group would have been better named 'Wal-Marts,' rather than 'Citizens,'" says State Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth.

Erickson has been in the news recently for starting another political group, Not My Bathroom, to overturn Missoula's new anti-discrimination ordinance.

The Wal-Mart controversy dates back to 2006 when the chain sought to build a 154,000-square-foot "Supercenter" north of Hamilton. After hearing concerns from locals, Ravalli County Commissioners passed an emergency ordinance limiting retail store sizes to 60,000 square-feet.

In response to the cap, Erickson formed RCCFE, aiming to overturn the ordinance through a voter referendum. According to Unsworth, between September 2006 and October 2006, RCCFE reported only one contribution—a $100,000 donation from Wal-Mart.

Under Montana law, any group participating in an election must use a name or phrase that clearly identifies the economic or other special interest of a majority of its contributors. On those grounds, the Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, which opposed the Supercenter, filed a complaint against RCCFE alleging it violated the law by not accurately disclosing its contributors.

Though RCCFE successfully overturned the ordinance, Wal-Mart eventually pulled out. Meanwhile, during the investigation, Unsworth unearthed a $100 loan made to RCCFE by the group's treasurer on Sept. 26, 2006. Based on that technicality, Unsworth found RCCFE did not violate Montana's naming and labeling statute. Instead, he found the group violated the law by failing to accurately report contributions.

"The penalty was a penalty for essentially sloppy record keeping," Unsworth says.

After negotiating for more than a year, RCCFE settled. Wal-Mart issued a check on behalf of the group for $1,000 on February 26.

Erickson now acknowledges Wal-Mart's financial support. But he categorizes their participation with RCCFE as more of a partnership among like-minded interests than anything else.

"You either have free enterprise or you don't have free enterprise," he says. "By passing a law like that you don't have free enterprise."

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