HELENA, Montana — A Montana judge will decide without a court hearing whether to hit a conservative political group with a hefty fine for improper campaign spending after American Traditional Partnership's lawyer asked to be removed.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said Friday he would rule based on briefs filed in the proceedings against the political group known for challenging state campaign finance laws and targeting moderate Republicans.
The state attorney general's office is seeking more than $300,000 in fines against ATP after Sherlock ruled in January that the group acted as a political committee that violated state campaign finance laws when it mailed attack ads denouncing candidates in the 2008 election.
ATP has argued it did nothing wrong, but two attorneys who helped make that case have moved to distance themselves from the group.
Manhattan-based attorney Todd Stubbs asked to be removed due to an "unreasonable financial burden" the case imposes. He did not return telephone messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.
ATP's previous lawyer, James Brown of Helena, has said he no longer represents the group. He said in January that the group was no longer active and that operations were "in flux."
If Sherlock rules that ATP should be fined, Brown said on Jan. 22, "The question is, How do you collect?"
Several messages left recently by the AP with individuals previously involved with the organization have not been returned.
State officials have continued to pursue the case.
Assistant attorney general Michael Black has asked Sherlock to reject Stubbs' request calling it "yet another example of ATP's ongoing tactic of delay and refusal to satisfy its obligations under Montana law."
The state won't agree to a new attorney until the group has another in place, Black said. He added that Brown remains counsel of record on the case, according to the court.
In the filing, Black attached an October email exchange in which Stubbs wrote that he didn't know whether ATP had representation and Brown asked the assistant attorney general "to please quite bothering" him about a client he doesn't represent.
Black responded, stating there is no "order allowing you to withdraw, and all I ever expect is for opposing counsel to follow the rules."
The back-and-forth is representative of the ongoing battle between the group and the state.
ATP has successfully challenged state campaign finance laws, including a 2012 decision out of the U.S. Supreme Court that its 2010 Citizens United decision allowing corporate spending nullified Montana's century-old law that limited election spending.
ATP also has won recent legal battles over political advertising, prompting a federal judge to strike down a Montana law requiring attack ads to list associated voting records and another state regulation banning knowingly false statements.
Montana officials argue that ATP's directors improperly used a corporate nonprofit organizational status to avoid disclosing election spending. The state continues to pursue such claims through the political practices office, in addition to the 2008 case before Sherlock.
Political practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl recently released a finding saying ATP contributed "unreported, undisclosed" money to at least one candidate in the 2010 election cycle. Motl's office said the investigation will expand to other candidates in both 2010 and 2012.
The issue has fractured the Montana Republican legislative caucus, with some lawmakers angry over being targeted with nasty mailers in campaign primaries.