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Conservative group resurfaces amid Montana probe into accusations of campaign coordination

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HELENA, Montana — A conservative group is seeking donations again after appearing to fade away when a Montana judge ruled it disregarded state campaign laws by acting as a political committee while keeping its donors and spending confidential.

American Tradition Partnership recently sent out emails seeking donations, blasting environmentalists and the Environmental Protection Agency, and urging people to sign petitions for President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported.

One email accused the director of the movie "Noah" of having "completely rewritten its message to support radical environmentalism."

The emails ask for $5 to $10 online donations and provide no physical address for the organization.

Some of the emails were signed by Geoff Goble, a businessman from McLeod in Sweet Grass County, who is listed as chairman of American Tradition Partnership and chairman of FuelingJobs.com, an affiliated group, Lee Newspapers said. Chris Michael, ATP's communications director, signed some other emails.

Neither Goble nor Michael responded to calls and emails for comment.

American Tradition Partnership, which used to be Western Tradition Partnership, played an influential role in Montana elections from the 2008 until the 2012 elections. It sent voters attack fliers against moderate candidates in legislative races and filed legal challenges to a slew of Montana campaign laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court nullified Montana's century-old law that limited corporate election spending after American Tradition Partnership argued the state law goes against the court's 2010 Citizens United ruling.

American Tradition Partnership ceased activity after District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled in 2012 that it acted as a political committee in past elections — not the education organization it claimed to be — and that it must disclose its donors and spending.

In 2013, Sherlock fined American Tradition Partnership $261,600 in part for what he said "appears to be a deliberate attempt to evade Montana's campaign and reporting requirements."

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ordered ATP to pay nearly $7,000 in attorney fees for the state in another case.

ATP has paid neither judgment, although state officials haven't entered the judgment in state court yet.

More recently, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl has issued a series of rulings that said the group illegally contributed to and coordinated with at least eight Republican candidates in past elections.

Motl's decisions don't have the force of law, and he has initiated court proceedings seeking to remove two sitting Republican legislators from office — Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich and Rep. Mike Miller of Helmville — and take them off the 2014 ballot.

Wittich and Miller have said they did nothing wrong.

Motl said American Tradition Partnership has no mailing address, no contact person, no attorneys and no spokesman.

"They are a non-legitimate, dark player in Montana's politics, as far as this office is concerned," Motl said.

He and Gov. Steve Bullock advised Montanans to be wary about dealing with the group.

"An organization like that doesn't rely on the public trust," Bullock said. "They just rely on sheer distortions and shell games."

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