HELENA – The documentary film “Dark Money,” which continues its run this week in several Montana theaters, takes aim at political groups that don’t divulge their donors – but doesn’t spend much time discussing those groups’ take on the issue.
One of those groups is the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative, free-market group that’s featured prominently in portions of the film.
AFP-Montana does not disclose its donors, for privacy and free-speech reasons – and, because of that policy, has had to adjust its efforts to comply with Montana’s 2015 Disclose Act, AFP-Montana Director David Herbst told MTN News.
The law says if any communication by a group publicly mentions a candidate for state office within 60 days of an election in Montana, that group must reports its donors and spending.
AFP-Montana no longer makes such communications within that time frame, because it doesn’t want to disclose its donors, Herbst says.
“What we do is communicate to the public what’s going on in Washington, D.C., and Helena year-round,” Herbst says. “(Now) we can’t talk about people who matter, when it’s too close to an election.”
He says AFP-Montana is trying to inform the public, and not trying to influence elections.
Requiring disclosure of the names of citizens and companies donating to AFP-Montana or other such groups violates their privacy rights and could subject them to economic and political retaliation, Herbst adds.
“We object to the government taking away the privacy rights of private individuals when they donate to private, nonprofit organizations,” he says.
But a lead sponsor of the Disclose Act, state Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell, told MTN News Monday that AFP-Montana’s arguments don’t hold water.
Garner, a Republican, said messages from AFP-Montana and similar groups are clearly trying to influence elections – and, if that’s occurring within 60 days of balloting, their funding should be disclosed.
“I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to express their opinion, but I think we should call it what it is: They’re trying to influence elections,” he said.
Garner also said he doesn’t see why supporters of groups trying to influence elections deserve any more privacy than people who contribute to candidates or the candidates themselves.
“Any candidate, and people who support any candidate, are subject to disclosure,” he said. “I’m saying the playing field should be level … I think the people in the state should know who it is, who’s trying to influence elections and the opinions of our elected officials.”
Herbst said AFP-Montana believes that private individuals and other entities should be able to support groups that educate the public about issues, candidates and elected officials with divulging their identity.
AFP-Montana is supported by individuals, businesses and foundations, he says.
Americans for Prosperity is often labeled as a group funded primarily by David and Charles Koch, who have given millions of dollars in support to conservative, free-market causes and policies.
Herbst said it is part of the Koch network, supported by Koch Industries, the companies controlled by the Kochs – although David Koch retired from the companies this year, due to health reasons.
Story by Mike Dennison, MTN News