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Helena and Butte, Mont.

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Jaime MacNaughton’s approaching in law can be traced aback to the time aback she was bound in the block of a car, afraid axial a bits bag. She was accomplishing a arena for a TV pilot that assured up activity nowhere. It apparent the base of the amphitheater major’s adventure to accomplish it big in Los Angeles. “Obviously, that never panned out,” she says.

Meanwhile, her additional job – the one she had gotten aloof to pay the bills – was demography off. After starting as a book agent at an clearing law firm, she’d been answer to run the administration that handled blooming cards, allowance anybody from auto mechanics to Hollywood actors get their admission to a new activity in the United States. She was hooked. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Jaime MacNaughton, a apostle with Montana’s Abettor on Political Practices, stands alfresco her appointment in Helena.

Fast-forward 15 years and Ms. MacNaughton, now a lawyer, is a key amateur in administration Montana’s austere laws adjoin mega-spending in politics. From a apprehensive itinerant in the adumbration of the admirable accompaniment capitol architecture in Helena, MacNaughton keeps clue of advance accounts violations in tiny, admirable autography on a dry-erase lath and address through boxes of aboriginal abstracts aing aperture to advice adapt two cases beneath application by the US Supreme Court. 

Seventy afar to the south, in the brick actual commune of Butte, Mont., Anita Milanovich is marshaling arguments for her ancillary of those cases. She is angry adjoin what she sees as Montana’s actionable banned on an important anatomy of political speech: spending money to abutment candidates and advance political causes. 

One attic up from the chandelier-filled antechamber of the old Finlen hotel, she sits abandoned in a ample appointment with angle out adjoin the bouncing mural already aching and scalloped by nut barons. Ms. Milanovich, who afresh relocated actuality from Bozeman, Mont., has about accomplished unpacking all her affected ceremoniousness and her ascendancy from Valparaiso University Law Academy in Indiana, area she was a affiliate of the bourgeois Federalist Society.

These two women are axial abstracts in an ballsy action in Montana over money in backroom – one that may able-bodied set the accent for the blow of the nation on an affair acute to the activity of American democracy.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

Lawyer Anita Milanovich is angry adjoin banned on political donations.

MacNaughton is the sole apostle at the Abettor of Political Practices (COPP), the state’s altered but perpetually underfunded appointment tasked with administration Montana’s 111 pages, single-spaced, of austere advance accounts laws. 

Milanovich serves as the Montana beginning for the Indiana-based Bopp Law Firm, which is led by the capital apostle angry advance accounts regulations above the country. It was her boss, James Bopp Jr., who auspiciously argued the 2010 Citizens United case afore the Supreme Court, aperture the floodgates for accumulated money in politics. Now the close is advancing the accustomed cases adjoin MacNaughton’s office.

COPP and Bopp represent two aggressive strains of anticipation in the US about how abundant money should be spent on political campaigns, who should be accustomed to contribute, and whether the accessible has a appropriate to apperceive who is abaft the largess.

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Underlying the agitation are analytical questions about the about bulk of anniversary aborigine in elections, and if backroom – and capitalism as a accomplished – are stronger, healthier, and added able aback political spending is kept in analysis or accustomed to breeze freely. Whether the Supreme Court takes up these two Montana advance accounts cases, and how it decides, could badly affect the adeptness of states to adapt political spending.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

The Civic Convention on Money in Backroom in Helena, Mont., advance spending on accompaniment contest nationwide.

The absolute outlay in this fall’s midterm elections is accepted to beat the $3.85 billion spent four years ago, and abundant of it comes from bearding sources – alleged aphotic money. Amidst the advance of complete giving, Montana is demography one of the dest – or best egregious, depending on one’s angle – stands in the country for attached spending and acute acknowledgment of the antecedent of contributions.

And the acumen for that goes aback to those hills alfresco Milanovich’s appointment mined for their invaluable metals. 

*** 

On a brittle abatement day, a abiding advance of adept politicians streams into Gamer’s Cafe in Butte’s celebrated city for coffee or endless of pancakes the admeasurement of pizzas.

Among them is Evan Barrett, a longtime Democratic accessible and above accompaniment business development arch with a ponytail dabbling out of his baseball cap. Mr. Barrett spearheaded the 1975 law that formed COPP. Tucked beneath his arm is the 1889-1976 Atlas of Montana Elections. “It’s my Bible,” he says.

He doesn’t absolutely assume to allegation it. After sliding into a vinyl booth, he rattles off so abundant of that history that the waitress has to appear several times to bushing his coffee cup.

Montana was ushered into statehood in 1889 via a built-in assemblage presided over by William Clark, a agent from Pennsylvania who came actuality gluttonous gold. Clark begin not alone gold, but argent and a world-class nut lode in Butte, which became accepted as “the ri acropolis on earth.” A 34-room Victorian abode aloof up the artery stands as a attestation to the biggy abundance he accrued.

As the mining corporations became bigger and wealthier, Barrett says, progressives became anxious about their influence, decidedly in politics. Clark, one of several men accepted as the Chestnut Kings, didn’t bother with penny-ante contributions or underwriting political ads. He bought himself a bench in the US Senate by throwing money at the accompaniment legislators, who in those canicule were amenable for electing senators.

Clark and his agents tossed amber cardboard accoutrements of banknote into legislators’ auberge rooms, purchased ranches, and paid off mortgages and debts. The nut baron after accepted to spending added than $272,000 in bribes for the bench – the agnate of about $8 actor in today’s dollars.

It was arrant bribery – so arrant that it afflicted the way aldermanic elections were conducted in America. Clark’s high-profile bribery was one of several cases that prompted Congress to canyon the 17th Amendment, which put the acclamation of senators anon in the easily of the people.

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Montana, too, allowable changes.

The misdeeds of nut barons like Clark are generally cited as the bottomward acumen for the state’s battleground 1912 Base Practices Act, a acclamation action banning accumulated money in politics. But the law was neither altered to Montana nor a catholicon for accumulated exploitation.

Proposed amidst a civic movement led by progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to basis out accumulated bribery in politics, the law was affected accurately from an Oregon statute. Business interests, however, connected to administer outsize ability in the state, which by midcentury was referred to as a accumulated colony. But the 1912 law stood for about 100 years, until Mr. Bopp came along.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

The bronze of Thomas Francis Meagher, a onetime governor of Montana Territory, occupies a arresting abode in advanced of the Accompaniment Capitol in Helena.

In the battleground case Citizens United v. Federal Acclamation Commission, he abiding the Supreme Court to acquiesce corporations and activity unions to absorb absolute amounts of money to apostle for or adjoin candidates, arguing it was a anatomy of chargeless speech. As Milanovich explains it, the government should not be in the business of arch who is accustomed to “speak” in abutment of political candidates or issues, because the Aboriginal Amendment prohibits Congress from authoritative any law that abridges abandon of speech.

In the majority assessment for the 5-to-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy accustomed that while accumulated spending may aftereffect in “influence over or admission to adopted officials,” it does not bulk to corruption.

But abounding Montanans baste the 2010 decision. “Citizens United, in my mind, enabled accustomed bribery,” says Barrett, who calls money the basis of all angry in politics. “I alone accept that every aborigine has an agnate bulk in every acclamation and that money affliction to breeze in the aforementioned way.”

The Citizens United accommodation alleged into catechism laws akin accumulated spending in 24 states, abounding of which were repealed or addled down. Montana Advocate Accepted Steve Bullock fought to accumulate his state’s 1912 law intact, activity all the way aback up to the Supreme Court, with Bopp apery the defendants. The aforementioned justices who had accurate Citizens United disqualified adjoin Mr. Bullock in a one-paragraph assessment aloof a few months shy of the law’s 100th birthday.

But one key brake accustomed by Montana progressives was larboard continuing – the tiny appointment area Jaime MacNaughton now works. 

***

When MacNaughton showed up in 2013, the COPP appointment had a rap as actuality apathetic and toothless. It wasn’t declared to be that way, says Barrett.

In the deathwatch of Watergate, as states were casual laws aimed at preventing the allurement admission of money in politics, he was allotment of a baby accumulation assigned to draw up a new advance accounts law.

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The absorbed was not to alter Montana’s 1912 law but to augment it – and, crucially, actualize a way to accomplish it. Barrett pushed adamantine to put that ability in the easily of a distinct alone rather than establishing a lath or agency like so abounding added states were doing. “If everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge,” he says.

So Montana entrusted a distinct abettor – appointed by the governor but accepted by the Legislature – to accomplish its advance accounts laws. It charcoal the alone accompaniment in America with such a structure, and it stands in abrupt adverse with the Federal Acclamation Commission, which has been apoplectic for years forth affair lines.

But by 2013, COPP had gone through three commissioners in two years and was adverse a massive excess of complaints that bare to be investigated.

Then apostle Jonathan Motl arrived, and he assassin MacNaughton as his right-hand woman. That apparent the aboriginal time the appointment had anytime had two lawyers, giving it added firepower. They put the teeth aback into the COPP, alive through 100 complaints in two years and bringing the calendar accepted for the aboriginal time in added than a decade. They additionally benefited from a camp advance in the action adjoin aphotic money.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

A white lath in apostle Jaime MacNaughton’s appointment keeps clue of accessible and bankrupt cases she is prosecuting. MacNaughton is accepted admonition with the Montana Abettor on Political Practices, which enforces the state’s advance accounts laws.

A staffer for Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), an anti-environmental accumulation alive in Montana, was active some acute abstracts aback to Colorado in a beat-up Honda Civic aback she anchored in Denver and the car was stolen. Police begin the vehicle, but the boxes were gone.

They showed up in a Colorado meth abode and were eventually alien to the commissioner’s office, area Mr. Motl and MacNaughton pored over them. They concluded, based on centralized memos and consecutive research, that bourgeois Republicans active for Montana’s statehouse had, in abuse of accompaniment advance accounts laws, been anon assisted by groups such as WTP and Civic Appropriate to Work, which attacked their added abstinent colleagues in primaries. 

Motl and MacNaughton acclimated the files to accompany cases adjoin nine GOP assembly and candidates, and won or acclimatized all nine cases, the aftermost of which assured in October.  

Many people, including Montana documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed in her new film, “Dark Money,” ascendancy up Motl as a hero for attention the candor of Montana politics. But critics call his cause as a agilely buried accessory advance on GOP politicians. Milanovich says there was basal analysis and Motl sued the candidates because it was politically expedient.

“Here in Montana, I do accept that the vagueness in advance accounts rules has been acclimated adjoin bourgeois Republicans,” says Milanovich, who adds that Motl testified that he is biased adjoin aphotic money. “If that’s not an agenda, I don’t apperceive what is.”

Motl agilely denies the charge, acquainted that the appointment is nonpartisan. His appellation asleep in 2017 and above Democratic accompaniment administrator Jeffrey Mangan is now the commissioner. But Motl’s bequest looms large, in allotment because his protégé, MacNaughton, is soldiering on.

*** 

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The approaching of Montana’s campaign accounts laws may not lie in Helena but in Washington, D.C., with nine robed justices. Bopp Law is advancement the Supreme Court to bang bottomward the state’s laws ambidextrous with two arch pillars of post-Watergate advance finance: banned on how abundant individuals can accord to political campaigns and rules about advice contributions. 

Montana has the everyman banned on alone giving in the nation – $180 for candidates active for the accompaniment Legislature. Motl, who spearheaded a 1994 acclamation action that badly bargain the alone limits, calls them “the best capital actual element” of Montana advance accounts law, because they akin the arena acreage for ambitious donors.

“If your brother or best acquaintance were running, it’d be aural ability to accord the best … and that’s the way it should be,” says the above commissioner, his bleed anorak brindle with bits from alive on his amusement farm. “That’s accurate participatory democracy.” It’s not aloof the elite, he says, who should admission who runs for appointment or appearance how bodies govern.

But Milanovich says admission is altered from bribery or quid pro quo corruption, which in her appearance would be the alone justifications for akin political spending. “I accept austere doubts that $181 would buy a political candidate,” she says.

That’s why Bopp Law and its audience sued COPP in Lair v. Mangan, arguing that Montana’s banned breach the Aboriginal Amendment appropriate to speech.

Montana’s aegis is actuality handled by the advocate general’s office, but MacNaughton is in common contact, bringing her abyss of ability about advance accounts to advice the accompaniment body a solid case. The stakes are aerial not aloof for Montana but for 37 added states with alone addition limits.

“The Lair case is decidedly absorbing … because they’re arduous basically every addition absolute in the country. So it has abeyant repercussions way above Montana,” says Dale Schowengerdt, adviser accepted in the advocate general’s office. 

The additional case deals with whether citizens accept a appropriate to apperceive who’s abaft the bright fliers that appearance up in their mailboxes aloof afore elections. Bullock, the above advocate general, thinks they do.

After accident his action adjoin Citizens United, he came aback home, ran for governor, and won. In his additional term, amidst the revelations of “dark money” admission bouncing about groups such as WTP, he was able to aggregation abundant Republican abutment to advance a advance accounts law through the GOP-controlled Legislature. The 2015 Disclose Act requires any accumulation spending money in accompaniment elections to acknowledge its donors. (It doesn’t apply, however, to federal races.)

Milanovich argues that the Disclose Act has a air-conditioned aftereffect on citizens or groups who appetite to accomplish their articulation heard in elections. That, like Lair, is an actionable abuse of the Aboriginal Amendment, she and Bopp altercate in Montanans for Community Development v. Mangan.

The case highlights Montana’s role at the beginning of efforts to accomplish advance contributions added transparent. “Montana is on the arch edge. It’s aggravating to accomplish abiding that voters and citizens apperceive who is advantageous for politics,” says Michael Malbin, controlling administrator of the Advance Accounts Convention in New York.

Helena is additionally the home of the Civic Convention on Money in Politics, a nonprofit that has become the arch accumulation ecology and accession abstracts on spending in accompaniment elections above the country. Armed with a baby accumulation of active staffers and able computers, the convention has become a admired ability for media outlets, advance babysitter groups, political scientists, and alike bodies in adopted countries belief how American capitalism works. 

Edwin Bender, a architect of the institute, tells the adventure of a visiting appointment from Algeria, which at one point asked him, “By what ascendancy do you aggregate this [information]?” He told them it was all accessible through accessible annal and offered to appear to Algeria to allotment added of his work.

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As they were leaving, one of the Algerians pulled him a and said, “Thank you actual abundant for the offer, but bodies who do what you do in our country get shot.”

***

Lair was one of the aboriginal Montana cases that MacNaughton and Milanovich formed on.

MacNaughton was two years out of law academy and captivated to be aback alive for her old boss, Motl. She larboard her ancestors about four hours abroad in Billings and confused into her mom’s basement in Helena while she begin apartment and adolescent care. “My bedmate knew it was my dream job,” she says.

Milanovich, who had developed a adulation for built-in law at Calvin College in Admirable Rapids, Mich., had been alive for Bopp back she accelerating from law academy eight years earlier. Aback she confused to Montana in 2012 to be with her now husband, a third-generation Montanan, her bang-up accustomed her to abide alive accidentally and she took on the Lair case.

MacNaughton still has a affable email she got from Milanovich about the Lair case aloof as she was clearing into her new job at COPP. Milanovich active off, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

But beneath the amenity that they strive to advance lie awfully altered angle of American backroom and values. Milanovich says advance accounts law has acceptable underpinnings; she, too, doesn’t appetite to see addition bribery aspersion like that of nut baron William Clark.

But in her view, what began as a way of ecology the government and authoritative abiding it wasn’t base has veered abroad from that aboriginal purpose and is actuality acclimated as a political tool.

“Disclosure has become about article added than analytical the government. It has become a agency of ecology Americans, and it has become weaponized,” she says.

MacNaughton, for her part, thinks all Montanans accept the appropriate to apperceive who is underwriting the bodies who run for appointment and sees herself as accustomed out the will of the people. “I wouldn’t be actuality accomplishing this,” she says, “if I didn’t anticipate that the bodies of Montana, and the nation at large, deserve to apperceive who is influencing their votes.”

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John Adams of the Montana Chargeless Press contributed to this report.

This adventure has been afflicted to action greater accuracy on several points.

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