Drug lobby donation went to pro-Democratic nonprofit

PR firm linked to group that received $500,000 PhRMA donation

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Mark Lennihan/AP

A nonprofit group in Montana that supported a conservative state Supreme Court candidate was not the recipient of a $500,000 donation from the nation’s top drug lobby as suggested earlier this week and probably wouldn’t accept the money even if it were offered.

“I’ve never raised a dime from a pharmaceutical company,” said Republican state Sen. Jason Priest, a board member and former executive director of the Montana Growth Network, which produced radio advertisements and mailings during the election.

“Guys like PhRMA, they want more government,” he said. “They want all this ‘Obamacare’ stuff, all these health care exchanges, the expansion of Medicaid and things that I don’t like.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) gave $500,000 to a nonprofit group called “Montana Growth,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported this week.

Records appeared to indicate the funding went to the only “Montana Growth” that reported any spending to Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices this year — Priest’s “Montana Growth Network.”

The Montana Growth Network actually resides in the state while “Montana Growth,” the true recipient of the drug lobby’s donation, lists its address as a mailbox in a UPS store in Washington, D.C.

The Center was able to track down the recipient of the funds by tracing a federal identification number that showed that “Montana Growth” was formerly known as “Economy Forward.” Records indicate its directors are Jessica Bradley and Carrie Schuyler of the Democratic-aligned public relations firm Hilltop Public Solutions, which has offices in D.C., New York and Billings, Mont.

Little is known about the group, but Internal Revenue Service documents indicate that the drug lobby’s contribution supplied the bulk of its funding.

Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that Montana Growth raised just over $816,000 in 2011.

Its expenses included $275,000 on “grassroots and grasstops consulting” and $70,000 for research on “important issues facing the state of Montana to [help] better inform advocacy efforts.”

It also transferred $40,000 to a liberal-leaning group called “America Votes,” which like Montana Growth, is a “social welfare” nonprofit under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code. This year, America Votes reported spending about $47,000 to the Federal Election Commission for telephone calls supporting President Barack Obama and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in October.

When the Center for Public Integrity called the D.C. office of Hilltop Public Solutions to inquire about Montana Growth, an intern who answered the phone said, “We don’t take calls for that group here.”

Schuyler, via email, directed the Center to “contact@bigskygrowth.org” — bigskygrowth.org is a Web domain name that was created Friday, shortly after the public relations firm was contacted by the Center, according to a website registry report.

An unattributed reply came back that stated: “Thank you for your questions.  It is the organization's policy to not publicly comment on its advocacy or budget.”

In a 2010 IRS filing, Economy Forward reported spending nearly $175,000 on television ads that praised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ahead of his contentious re-election fight. The ads urged viewers to call Reid and ask him to back a specific legislative proposal.

That year, Economy Forward raised just shy of $176,000 — all of which came from another social welfare nonprofit called the “Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund,” as previously reported by ProPublica.

For its part, Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund, also called the CSS Action Fund, received $2.5 million in 2010 directly from PhRMA, as the Center for Public Integrity first reported earlier this year.

Hilltop Public Solutions works primarily with Democrats in races across the country. Hilltop’s founder, Nicholas Baldick, has been involved with every Democratic presidential campaign since 1992, including serving as John Edwards’ national campaign manager in 2004, according to the group’s website.

Other Hilltop clients have included Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

Press officials at PhRMA declined to answer questions about the contribution.

Andrea Fuller and Alexandra Duszak contributed to this report.