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Montana Acts as Case Study in Film on "Dark Money" in Elections

Investigative journalist John Adams follows the trail of campaign contributions in the documentary "Dark Money." (Dark Money/PBS Distribution)
Investigative journalist John Adams follows the trail of campaign contributions in the documentary "Dark Money." (Dark Money/PBS Distribution)
August 6, 2018

HELENA, Mont. – A new documentary follows the path of dark money in elections after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision – using Montana as a case study.

The film "Dark Money" looks at Montana's past, when out-of-state developers bribed their way into office and led Big Sky Country to ban big money from politics in 1912.

But director and Montanan Kimberly Reed says in a post-Citizens United world where money in elections is untraceable, corporate influence has made its way back into the state.

She says the rest of the country is getting a lesson Montana learned at the turn of the 20th century.

"You also have to consider when you don't know who's behind that money, you don't know what their motives are,” Reed states. “You don't know what leverage they have over candidates or elected officials who are already in office. And that's just the perfect recipe for corruption."

After a recap of Montana history, the film follows the trial of former state Sen. Art Wittich, who in 2016 was found guilty of taking illegal campaign contributions.

"Dark Money" will make its debut in Montana on Friday.

Reed notes this isn't a partisan issue. Dark money seeps into elections on both sides. She says every cycle, more money is pumped into elections and more of it is dark money.

Montana is in the midst of one of those elections. Reed says the race for Jon Tester's U.S. Senate seat is on track to be more expensive than his 2012 Senate race, which was the costliest Senate race of that year.

However, she notes at the state level, Montana actually has tightened up its campaign finance laws in the aftermath of Wittich's conviction.

"The irony is that, for state and local elections in Montana, they're running much cleaner, but the federal elections like Senate races are actually, you know, they're worse than ever," Reed points out.

But even with dark money looming over the midterms, Reed sees this as a hopeful story.

She says in Montana, bipartisan cooperation cleaned up elections – a place some might not expect that type of cooperation across the aisle.

Reed points out across the nation, this is happening at the local level too.

"City council after city council, school board after school board, issuing resolutions, proclamations stating that they want to have disclosure in their elections, that they want to have small-donor public financing that is funding their elections, that we want to have people on the local level mobilizing," she states.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT