House District 71 Representative Bob Wagner’s signature was shown last week on the PBS Frontline show “Big Sky, Big Money,” which outlined the increasing role of money in politics, particularly this year’s races.
Part of the show focused on possible connections between Montana legislative races in 2010 and a social welfare group called Western Tradition Partnership.
And though Wagner’s signature was shown during the documentary, it doesn’t mean he is connected to WTP or any wrongdoing, Wagner said Monday.
The hour-long documentary discussed three boxes of documents found in a drug house in Colorado. These documents were allegedly stolen from WTP and included campaign material that could implicate the group in coordinating campaign efforts with candidates in Montana during the 2010 election.
The back-story to the issue is the Citizen’s United case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined corporations have the same rights of free speech afforded to people.
Operating under the cover of this decision are groups like WTP, which are categorized as a 501 (c) 4 organization and don’t have to disclose their donors and can spend as much money as they’d like on issues during a campaign. Many of these organizations are responsible for election-related television and newspaper advertisements, along with the plethora of campaign materials mailed to residents around the state.
However, the law bars these groups from coordinating with any campaigns. A 501 (c) 4 organization must have only issue oriented advertising and must operate independently of any campaign.
But this doesn’t explain why a blank piece of paper with Wagner’s signature was on Frontline last week.
The explanation is really simple, Wagner said.
During the 2010 election, he had his campaign material printed in Livingston by a woman name Allison LeFer. According to Frontline, Allison and her husband Christian are deeply involved with WTP.
However, neither WTP or Christian LeFer were involved in his campaigns, Wagner said. His only involvement with the LeFers was simply for printing services.
Reporters from Frontline interviewed Wagner for the documentary, but didn’t end up using the interview in their show, he said.
When they talked to him, they showed him a document with his signature that was part of the three boxes of documents found in Colorado.
The document they showed Wagner was a fax approving edits to a letter his wife wrote on his behalf that was mailed around his district.
He also faxed Allison LeFer a copy of his signature stamp to have a more legible signature to add to other campaign material she was printing for him.
“The document I signed for her business was to okay a proofread,” Wagner said.
Frontline asked him if he had any concerns that a document with his signature on it turned up in Colorado. Evidently, the document they showed him was part of a file of his campaign materials that was also in the box.
Wagner told them he wasn’t concerned.
“Not at all,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got a file on Barrack Obama in my office, do you think he’s concerned?”
As far as ties between Wagner and WTP, he said there is none. He didn’t seek their advice or coordination on his campaigns, nor did he really know anything about them.
In fact, the first time he heard of WTP was after they mailed out a political flyer supporting him during his race in 2010.
The main concern Wagner has with political advertisements today is that they’ll influence people who should know better than to believe them.
“Some people might buy into that stuff,” Wagner said. “I am concerned more with the fact that there’s a lot of people who can’t sort out truth from fiction.”
The problem is one of education – or essentially where people choose to get their information, he said.
However, he’s not a card-holding member of any organization and though he’s appreciated support from various groups, he’s never sought it.
“I don’t belong to any group,” he said. “I’m not a dues paying member to the NRA or the family foundation or any of them. If they endorse me I hope it’s for where I stand on issues instead of thinking they’ve got me in their pocket.”
The three boxes of documents at the heart of Frontline’s piece are in possession of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices in Helena. WTP is claiming the documents were stolen and should be returned. It’s an unfolding story that seems to have more yet to come.
The Frontline piece can be seen online here.
More coverage of the issue can be see at the website for an investigative journalism group called ProPublica.