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When Ed Sheehy looked at his mail one day last fall, he was startled to see his face staring back at him, posed alongside the notorious “Christmas Day Killer.” Sheehy, as a public defender, had represented the man a year earlier. Now Sheehy was running for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court and someone was using the double-murder to accuse him of being soft on crime.

“I was furious,” the 60-year-old Sheehy, who was born in Butte, Mont., and now resides in Missoula, told the Center for Public Integrity. “It was misrepresenting what I did and what I do as a lawyer.”

So who was behind the attack?

The mailer showed only that it was paid for by the “Montana Growth Network,” a “social welfare” nonprofit, registered under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. Montana election records revealed next to nothing about the organization, which, because of its tax status, is not required to disclose its donors. The nonprofit’s website says its goal is to make Montana “more business friendly.”

Despite finishing on top in the summer’s primary election, Sheehy lost in November.

Part of a mailer from the Montana Growth Network.

Mystery mailers

He blames the mailers and similarly themed radio ads paid for by the group for his defeat, and he is angry that it was not required to report the full extent of its spending — much less the names of those who bankrolled it.

Montana, in fact, is one of 35 states where disclosure laws for independent groups like the Montana Growth Network are less stringent than what federal election law requires, according to a new analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Montana judicial candidate Ed Sheehy. He blames mailers and radio ads opposing him paid for by the Montana Growth Network for his defeat in a 2012 state Supreme Court race. 
Courtesy of Ed Sheehy

Sheehy, the nephew of a former Montana Supreme Court justice, first faced off against attorney Elizabeth Best and Laurie McKinnon, a district judge, in a three-way, nonpartisan primary in June. The top two vote-getters advanced to the general election in November.

Ahead of the primary, the Montana Growth Network endorsed McKinnon and touted her in a mass mailing as “fair,” “honest,” “constitutional” and “the only nonpartisan choice for Supreme Court.”

The group’s mailers also focused on Sheehy’s work defending a murderer and criticized Best for pursuing a lawsuit to “seize control of the state’s atmosphere … to stop global warming.”

Sheehy, who finished first with 34.3 percent of the vote, spent $32,000 during the primary, and McKinnon, who finished second with 33.6 percent of the vote, spent about $30,000, records show. Best came in at third with 32.1 percent.

Best raised more than the other two candidates combined — $128,000, which included roughly $20,000 of her own money. She was the only candidate to advertise on television.

The Montana Growth Network spent roughly $42,000 during the primary election — more than either Sheehy or McKinnon’s own campaigns.

Outsider spends big

Best told the Center for Public Integrity that she was “stunned” by the result.

“Hearing from the candidates doesn’t matter anymore,” she said, adding that what matters is who has well-financed outside supporters to “cast candidates as something they aren’t and to tip the scales.”

McKinnon, Best said, was “running as a partisan with unlimited backing.”

The amount spent by the Montana Growth Network in the primary was required by state law to be disclosed because the mailings urged voters to support or oppose a candidate — a line the nonprofit says it didn’t cross with its subsequent activities, whose costs it did not disclose.

Ahead of the November election, one direct mail piece from the Montana Growth Network argued that under Sheehy, justice would be “beholden to a political party,” based on Sheehy’s past financial support of Democratic candidates.

Additionally, both mail and radio advertisements said that Sheehy had an “activist agenda” for his defense of Tyler Michael Miller, the so-called “Christmas Day Killer” who murdered his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter “in cold blood” in 2010.

While defending Miller, Sheehy had unsuccessfully sought for Montana’s death penalty process to be ruled unconstitutional because a single judge, not a jury, is allowed to assess whether “mitigating factors” exist that might rule out a death sentence.

Sheehy says he was simply “doing his job.” Miller is currently serving two life sentences after ultimately pleading guilty.