Skinner: The “Zombie” Money Backing Gustafson & Tranel in MT
If you're one of those "follow the money"- who is funding all of these crazy campaign commercials- types: Dave Skinner is the man.
Skinner wrote a weekly column for The Flathead Beacon in Kalispell. He has also done some incredible writing for Range Magazine where he has "followed the money" to see who is funding radical Left-wing outfits like the American Prairie Reserve, which is working to kick the ranchers off the land here in Montana.
Skinner followed the money to see who is funding some of the big-money campaign ads in support of liberal Montana Supreme Court Justice Ingrid Gustafson and the far-Left Democrat candidate for Congress in Western Montana- Monica Tranel.
Skinner joined us on the radio Thursday morning, and told us how he did some digging and found that some of these PAC's, like zombies, "rose back from the dead" to jump in on the 2022 elections here in Montana.
In addition to the column below, Skinner tells me that another similar PAC is funneling money through the trial lawyers to back Gustafson. "Montanans for Liberty and Justice...totally controlled by the Montana Trial Lawyers," Skinner writes. Here's more.
I just got a note back from the Commissioner of Political Practices office regarding the quarter mil going to the lawyers PAC from the eco-front "nonprofit." The "incidental committee" has the same name as a brand new "nonprofit" -- a 501c4 Mary Stranahan established in 2018 (Note- post updated to clarify it is a c4 and not a c3 as originally published)
Here's the full column that Skinner is sharing exclusively with our radio listeners.
Big Sky Voters PAC Overview
by Dave Skinner
Election 2022 has been pretty quiet in terms of “dark money.” Up to now, there’s only been one non-campaign, “independent” PAC buying statewide television ads, attacking U.S. House hopeful Ryan Zinke for alleged “corruption.”
The low level of PAC activity this year is because there’s relatively little at stake, boiling down to Montana’s “new” Western-district U.S. House seat. That’s going to be just another of 435 seats tallied to determine which party gets control of the U.S. House agenda.
In years with a presidential and/or U.S. Senate race, Montana’s Senate seats objectively matter more in the larger scheme of the Beltway’s “balance of power,” and therefore warrant more, um, er, investment.
That’s why, in 2020, PAC ads fully saturated Montana’s airwaves. This year, only two federal PAC’s bought noticeable air time, with only one currently active: Big Sky Voters PAC, which quietly registered with the Federal Elections Commission less than a month ago.
How quietly? Well, Open Secrets.org, a campaign finance transparency nonprofit, duly lists the Big Sky Voters PAC. However, despite the current advertisements, as of October 4 the Open Secrets website warns, in bold, “This PAC does not exist in the 2021-2022 election cycle. Please try another cycle.” This notation was based on independent-expenditure summaries “released by the Federal Election Commission on September 22, 2022.” Keep that date in mind, because in politics and campaign finance reporting, timing is everything.
Back in 2020, Big Sky Voters PAC was created within days of former Montana governor and failed Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock declaring his candidacy for U.S. Senate against incumbent Steve Daines.
While you can hit this link for details from Open Secrets regarding donors, and from there sniff around the “old” Big Sky Voters PAC all you want, the bottom line is that BSVPAC 2020 was a cash conduit used to direct monies to groups “independently” supportive of Steve Bullock’s 2020 Senate campaign.
This “single-candidate super PAC” raised and spent a not-very-super $725,725 from a handful of large donors. The largest donor was America Votes, giving $280,725 out of its $59 million throughput to “outside” groups, mostly progressive “nonprofits.”
BSVPAC 2020 had a handful of large individual donors, none of whom are Montanans, led by S. Donald Sussman of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He gave $125,000 on October 1, 2020, one day before America Votes. That was just one of 419 contributions he made, including 14 million-plus contributions totaling $22 million, all to Democratic candidates, PACS, state parties, and of course, progressive 501c4 nonprofits such as the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund.
Ten entities got large checks: Planned Parenthood, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Native Vote and Montana Rural Voters Action Fund all got over $120,000 from the 2020 version of BSVPAC. Smaller amounts went to Montana 55+ Action Fund and Big Sky 55+, which swapped cash back and forth in the last cycle. Another recipient was Billings-based WORC, as in the Western Organization of Resource Councils, which is theoretically and legally a nonpartisan environmental conservation organization.
Treasurer Holly Giarraputo, of Campaign Compliance in Missoula, filed the termination report in late November 2020. Other clients include Friends of Max Baucus, John Walsh for Senate, and the Montana Democratic Party. She billed $5004.40 for her work.
As for today’s Big Sky Voters, or BSVPAC 2022, the website BIGSKYVOTERS.COM was anonymously registered (through Contact Privacy in Toronto, Ontario) the evening of September 13th.
On October 4, Big Sky Voters PAC does pop up in Federal Elections Commission records, for an expenditure made, you guessed it, September 23, the day after FEC’s generalized “independent” deadline of the 22nd.
That’s $30,000, to something called Public Democracy, INC at 422 River Bend Road in Great Falls, Virginia – not Montana.
Public Democracy has a LinkedIn page which reveals they have four employees, but little else. Crunchbase lists Public Democracy as being based in Vausseroux, Poitou-Charentes, France, with the public contact being Frenchman Rob Lalka. Is he? Nope, Rob is a business school professor at Tulane and a Clinton State Department alumni. The guy who really runs the show seems to be founder Eric Sapp, also founder of the Eleison Group LLC, based in Arlington, Virginia. Eleison works to “leverage voter response data from those campaigns to create one of the largest values/behavioral voter databases and most sophisticated digital advertising platforms in the country.”
From that FEC filing, I was able to link back to FEC’s host page for Big Sky Voters PAC. From there, one can find the original “Statement of Organization,” filed September 15th, 2022, after which the Federal Elections Commission assigned this new Big Sky Voters PAC a committee ID number: C00825372.
FEC filing “FEC-1632203” accounts for BSVPAC 2022’s other expenditures: $12,462.23 going to Ralston Lapp Guinn Media of Washington DC for ad production, and $329,000.00 for “TV Ad” paid to Screen Strategies Media of Fairfax, Virginia, the airtime buy, bills also paid after September 22, giving a “Calendar YTD” of $371,462.23 spent in 2022 opposing Ryan Zinke.
Finally, FEC records list one Mary Stranahan as the “Person Completing Form” instead of Ms. Giarraputo. Mary Stranahan is rather well known in Montana’s left-wing community. She is a retired osteopath doctor and spark-plug-fortune heiress aiming to “further the cause of making Montana a more progressive state.” She controls and appears to be the sole funder of the High Stakes Foundation, which paid out $1.032 million in grants to Montana nonprofits in 2020.
Stranahan is also a substantial donor (in Montana terms) to Democrats, having written 18 checks for the current cycle, including $10,000 to the state party. Is she a major funder of BSVPAC 2022? Sorry, but donors won’t be reported until after the election is over and everyone, including Montana’s journalistic watchdogs, move on to the next shiny object.
Open Secrets summary:
Open Secrets donor listing for 2020:
Schedule E filing, posted October 4 to the Federal Elections Commission:
Public Democracy’s website:
Eric Sapp’s twitter page:
Mary Stranahan bio: