Perhaps nothing warms a university president's heart like successful alumni throwing millions of dollars at their alma mater. Recently, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado announced a $50 million donation—a university record—from Norm Asbjornson, owner of AAON, a Tulsa, Okla.- based heating and cooling equipment manufacturer.
Asbjornson is a 1960 MSU graduate in mechanical engineering, so fittingly, the money is earmarked for a new engineering building on the Bozeman campus to be named in his honor. Unfortunately for good public relations, the day before university regents met to approve the gift, it was revealed that Asbjornson was also the largest anonymous contributor to a "dark money" campaign organization featured in a Frontline documentary on PBS.
According to bank records, Asbjornson contributed $50,000 to a group called Western Tradition Partnership in 2008, and his company contributed $20,000 more in 2010. Western Tradition Partnership, which later morphed into American Tradition Partnership, is one of the many groups operating under the umbrella of "social welfare" organizations. Though it is illegal under federal law for these groups to coordinate with, or actively support, any candidate or ballot measure, covert campaign support was apparently their real mission. A police bust of a Colorado meth house in 2011 turned up a box of documents revealing that both groups secretly helped fund political campaigns in Montana.
At first, American Tradition Partnership denied any connection to the documents. Then it said they had been stolen and sued to have them returned to prevent their release. The documents exposed attempts by the group to help far-right candidates in Republican primary races in Montana through mailers and campaign fliers.
Eventually, the documents were turned over to Montana's commissioner of political practices, where they became the focus of an investigation by both state officials and a federal grand jury. In 2012, a Montana judge ruled that American Tradition Partnership acted illegally by coordinating with candidates as a political committee and therefore must disclose its financial records. Later in 2012, the day after Frontline's "Big Sky, Big Money" documentary aired, the office of the commissioner of political practices in Helena was burglarized. Luckily, the documents involved in the illegal contributions case had already been moved to a more secure location and nothing was reported stolen.
According to Tracy Ellig, MSU's director of communications, when Asbjornson was asked by college officials about his anonymous contributions to Western Tradition Partnership, he claimed he "didn't know" what the money would be used for.
I don't think you get wealthy enough to give away $50 million and not know what the money you spread around is used for. Considering the email sales pitch revealed in the confiscated documents, the only thing Asbjornson didn't know about his anonymous contribution was that it would be made public. Ellig also said he was unaware of any attempts by Asbjornson to get his money back from either partnership group, through a simple request or legal action. Calls to Asbjornson's office were not returned.
One month before Asbjornson and MSU announced his charitable donation to the university, the commissioner of political practices, based on the WTP documents, filed suit in Helena District Court calling for the removal of a Republican state lawmaker for illegally and secretly coordinating with an unregistered campaign organization. The commissioner also announced investigations into complaints made by fellow Republicans against other legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, for accepting without reporting in-kind campaign contributions from Western Tradition Partnership.
President Cruzado, however, has remained focused on the money, calling Asbjornson's dark money connection "political." She has chosen to ignore any legal questions, and the regents haven't seemed inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Should MSU ignore everything about a donation except its amount? Should a contribution referred to by President Cruzado—and described by others—as "an act of extreme generosity" trump ethical questions concerning the donor? How can the university now expel a student for cheating on a test in the new engineering building?
With slightly fewer than a million people, Montana is a cheap date. Wealthy out-of-state interests, transplants and returning multimillionaires can have a dramatic impact on state politics, using only the money found in the seat cushions of their private jets. The ethical threshold set by MSU's blind eye concerning Asbjornson's dark money contributions may someday cost Montana taxpayers more than $50 million, since anonymous influence peddling, legal or otherwise, is now sanctioned behavior in the state.
Brian Leland is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion column service of High Country News (hcn.org). An electrical contractor in Bozeman, he graduated in engineering from Montana State University in 1995.