Fishing expedition 

Initiative backers cast a wide net for campaigners

The backers of CI-97, CI-98 and I-154 aren’t going down without a fight. In the last days of September, letters were sent out to all Montana school districts and the Montana Office of Public Instruction asking for any e-mails or other electronic communication records pertaining to the ballot initiatives and signature gathering for them. Additional letters were sent to all Montana counties and major cities, including Kalispell and Missoula, and to various state agencies requesting their electronic communication policies, apparently setting the stage for an e-mail request from these entities also.

The letters bore the stamped signature of Trevis Butcher, the Treasurer of Montanans in Action, the group Butcher formed to try and get CI-97, CI-98 and I-154 on this year’s ballot. CI-97 would cap state spending, CI-98 would allow voter recall of state judges and I-154 would restrict Montana’s eminent domain and takings laws. Signatures for the three ballot measures were declared invalid by State District Court Judge Dirk Sandefur on Sept. 13. The decision has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.

Butcher says the information requests are designed to uncover if and how public employees are using public computer and e-mail systems for political campaigning by the employees and their unions. Such use is illegal in Montana. Butcher claims his requests are unrelated to the ballot initiatives.

“It’s part of a national research project,” he told the Independent.

He also says he is just the state contact for the group that’s actually interested in the e-mails, Virginia-based Citizens in Charge.

Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, reiterates that the requests are unrelated to the ballot initiatives, saying they’re aimed at learning how public employees use public e-mail systems to campaign.

“We think these requests will shine a light on an area that is a problem,” he says.

Jacob is not only the president of Citizens in Charge, but also a “senior fellow” with Americans for Limited Government (ALG) according to the ALG’s website. Eric O’Keefe, a board member for Citizens in Charge, is also a board member for ALG. ALG has provided nearly all funds supporting various groups across the west that have pushed initiatives similar to those advocated by Butcher. The chairman of ALG is libertarian activist and wealthy New Yorker Howard Rich. Finding out where ALG gets its money is difficult, if not impossible, as the group is registered as a 501c(4) nonprofit, a designation that allows it to avoid disclosing its funding sources.

There has been much speculation that ALG has been funding Trevis Butcher’s group, Montanans In Action, and Rich has admitted to High Country News that he gave $200,000 to the group.

So far, the e-mail and policy requests have gone out to six other states: Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada and Oregon. All of these states saw recent petition drives for ballot measures similar to Montana’s.

According Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, individuals found to have used public time and e-mail systems to campaign against ballot measures would be subject to fines three times the value of the support they provided to anti-initiative efforts. Time spent writing and sending e-mails would be considered an in-kind contribution. Unsworth also says that public employees using e-mail address lists on their public accounts to forward politically charged messages is a violation of state election law. E-mail address lists, Unsworth says, “have value,” which the commission would have to assess. But Unsworth says that whatever Citizens in Charge finds, it would not, as far as he can tell, give the group a legal lever to help put CI-97, CI-98 or I-154 to a vote.

Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association/Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), thinks Citizens in Charge’s requests are “meant to discredit the MEA-MFT” and Montana’s public employees union by showing they were involved in a “conspiracy” to defeat Citizens’ ballot measures.

Feaver says it shouldn’t surprise anyone that teachers and other public employees were against these measures, especially CI-97, and the groups that supported them.

“Their ideas are anti-government and anti-school,” he says.

Quinton Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association, doubts Citizens’ efforts will pay off.

“I don’t think they’re going to find anything,” he says. “We’re careful to use personal e-mail. We’re not going to put our members in hot water.”

He says union leadership also tells members to not use work e-mail for distributing any political information.

Linda McCulloch, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, is worried about the burden that processing the requests places on Montana school districts.

“When people from New York are behind this,” they don’t realize how small Montana school districts are, and how few people they have to process such requests, McCulloch says.

Jacob says that his group will pay for costs incurred by the requests. In all, Jacob told The Oregonian, he expects the requests to cost Citizens in Charge “well over $1 million.”

Jacobs’ requests come on the heels of an ad campaign by a Washington D.C. group, Center for Union Facts, that targeted public employees unions, suggesting, in essence, that such unions are the cause of runaway government spending. So far there seems to be no direct connection between ALG and Center for Union Facts, but their current strategies are similar: to discredit public employees and their unions, who have campaigned against ALG-backed initiatives.

According to Jacob, Citizens in Charge plans to post whatever it finds in the e-mails on its website.

Jacob says that processing and posting Citizens in Charge’s finding will take years, and so will probably not exert any influence on this year’s election.

Rather, Jacob and whoever he works for, have taken up a long-term strategy, suggesting that whatever the Supreme Court decides about the Montana initiatives, we haven’t heard the last of them.

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