Mystery deepens over origins of nonprofit battling Montana spending limits

'Someone is not coming clean'

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The origin story of the secretive nonprofit that is leading efforts to invalidate Montana’s campaign finance laws keeps getting murkier.

In a document filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the group claimed Jacob Jabs as its “primary donor” who had “agreed to provide $300,000” to get the group rolling in 2008.

It appears the group was referring to Jacob Jabs, the president and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse, based in Colorado, where ATP was created.

But a spokeswoman for Jabs said he's never heard of the group. ATP’s current executive director says he wasn’t with the organization at the time. The woman who signed the document would not return calls from the Center for Public Integrity.

“Someone is not coming clean,” said Marcus Owens, the former director of the division that handles nonprofit corporations at the IRS. “A knowing effort to mislead the IRS is a crime and people go to jail for that.”

Jabs has been a major supporter of Republican candidates and causes. He gave heavily to an anti-union ballot initiative in Colorado in 2008, and is a donor to Mitt Romney.

As for the gift to ATP, Jabs claims it didn’t happen.

“Mr. Jabs has not heard of this group, nor did he give them money,” said Charlie Saulis, Jabs’ spokeswoman.

Athena Dalton signed the September 2008 letter to the IRS which referenced a communication with the furniture magnate, during which Jabs “assured us that he will no longer contribute” if ATP did not receive its exempt status in the next two weeks.

A public records search reveals 17 listings for Jacob Jabs nationwide. Most of the listings refer to retail locations for Jabs’ American Furniture Warehouse. Two of the Jabs listed are deceased. Another Jacob Jabs resides in an Ohio home valued at a quarter of the alleged donation to ATP.

Then there is the Montana-born owner of American Furniture Warehouse, whose current residence is listed as a 5,000-square-foot mansion in Colorado valued at $1.8 million.

Dalton pressed the IRS, claiming that ATP would “be virtually unable to operate any of our programs,” and would “cease to exist” without the Jabs contribution.

The IRS approved the group’s application four days later. Shortly after, it sent out mailers in a dozen Montana legislative races attacking candidates. Voters don’t know who paid for the ads, which prompted an investigation into the group by Montana officials.

Athena Dalton is currently a staff member with the Colorado Senate Republican office. She did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment on the 2008 letter she signed.

ATP’s executive director Donald Ferguson said he was “not around” the organization when the letter was sent to the IRS, and declined to respond to further questions.

Scott Shires, the Colorado consultant who signed ATP’s 2008 application for exempt status, said he “doesn’t remember” Dalton or the letter she signed listing Jabs as a donor.

ATP, with help from lawyer Jim Bopp, who has made a name for himself challenging campaign finance rules in court, compelled Montana to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and give up its century-old ban on corporate spending on elections.

It has also sued over the state’s disclosure rules and its low dollar limits on contributions to candidates. In its legal challenges, ATP has faced off with Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, who is locked in a tight race for governor.

The group has launched direct mail campaigns attacking environmentalist forces it calls “Gang Green,” and now it’s going after Bullock.

In addition to the questions surrounding the Jabs donation, ATP’s filings with the IRS in subsequent years are difficult to track, and raise further legal questions.

In its 2008 application for exempt status, the IRS asked ATP if it planned to “spend any money attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election or appointment” of candidates for public office. It also asked if ATP published pamphlets, brochures, newsletters “or similar material.”

ATP answered “no” to both questions.

This application, says Owens, “was signed under penalty of perjury.”

Its spending activity is hard to track. ATP’s Form 990 tax filings for 2009, 2010 and 2011 are not accessible online and there appears to be no record of them. ATP failed to respond to a Center for Public Integrity request for those filings.

IRS rules require nonprofit organizations to make their three most recent annual returns publicly available.

The Center did obtain a copy of the group’s 2009 return prepared by Shires, but unsigned. In it, the group reports receiving about $100,000 in revenue, of which it says it spent $67,000 on “mailings concerning public issues.”

Nonprofits like ATP cannot make political activities their primary function, according to IRS rules.