A meth bust. A stolen car with secret documents. A shy young woman who finds herself in political peril. All of the elements you’d want for a good political thriller — yet this isn’t fiction.
And this tangled tale has a Colorado connection.
The documentary Dark Money is part thriller and part exposé on illegal coordination between candidate campaigns and dark-money groups that have taken place in Montana in the past decade. Such so-called “outside spending groups” — nonprofits that spend money to influence elections without disclosing their donors — are not allowed to coordinate their activities with candidates or campaigns.
Those violations have been the subject of numerous lawsuits and a criminal trial against a state representative.
The documentary will air Monday, Oct. 1 at 9 p.m. on the PBS show POV, including on Colorado’s Rocky Mountain PBS (Channel 6 in Denver).
WATCH a trailer at the end of this story.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January and has been touring the country since its official release in July, including a recent stop at Muenzinger Auditorium on the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
The primary whistleblower in Dark Money isn’t from Montana. It’s Sarah Anderson Arnold, a former legislative intern and campaign worker for some of Colorado’s top Republican elected officials and now a resident of Douglas County.
Her experiences include working on election campaigns for former Gov. Bill Owens and Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City. She was a legislative intern throughout high school for then-Rep. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud.
And if her last name is familiar, it should be. She’s married to Matt Arnold, who’s lodged more campaign finance complaints than anyone in the past six years. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story, and this is the one you will hear little of in Dark Money.
It starts out like this: after her time as a legislative intern, Arnold (then Anderson) was approached by Lundberg and Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs to see if she would be interested in going to Montana to help with campaign work for the National Right to Work Committee.
It’s an issue she believes in, Arnold told Colorado Politics. She said she was told it would be a good experience and a good way to build up her resume. She signed the employment contract in 2010 in the office of attorney Scott Gessler, who later served a term as Colorado secretary of state.
Gessler wasn’t working directly for National Right to Work, she said. At that time Gessler was the attorney for Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), an outside spending group which was actually Arnold’s new employer.
So it was off to Montana for Arnold, who was there for six months, from February to August 2010. During that time, the then-20-year old worked for Christian LeFer, a WTP leader, on two-dozen political campaigns in Montana, including 16 major candidate campaigns. “We worked 20 hours a day up to the primary, which was in June,” Arnold said.
What they did in Montana ran afoul of the state’s campaign finance laws, which are considered among the nation’s strictest.
Arnold said WTP was essentially running candidate campaigns. “There’s no other way to put it,” she said. They told the candidates how to do mailers and flyers, and which surveys to respond to and which to reject. They also wrote letters supporting the candidates and decided whose signatures would go on them.
But the mailers didn’t list WTP as their source: Often they came from groups such as Montanans for Tax Reform, Arnold said, as well as anti-abortion and pro-gun groups.
Arnold grew increasingly uneasy with what they were doing. “It’s a big part of why I left,” she said. “I was uncomfortable and didn’t think it was right or legal.”
On one trip back home during the 2010 campaign season, Arnold met her future husband in person for the first time, although they had been communicating through social media for about a year. That was on June 17, 2010.
This is where it gets interesting.
Arnold was driving a beat-up old Honda Civic that week, and in the Civic’s back seat were three boxes that she was supposed to deliver to the father-in-law of LeFer, the WTP executive, who lived in Denver. Arnold said she initially thought the boxes were headed for storage but later learned they were intended for the shredder.
It’s those three boxes, plus Arnold’s testimony and other documents that dropped into her lap by accident, that roiled the Montana political establishment.
The Honda — with the three boxes still in it — was stolen from a parking lot at the Denver Merchandise Mart on June 18, 2010. It was recovered a couple of days later by the police, but the three boxes had vanished.
The boxes contained fliers, mailers, letters with signature pages and, most importantly, invoices to the campaigns of 23 conservative candidates. They turned up a year later in a Denver Police meth house bust.
Somehow, those boxes made their way to Democratic operative and, later, state Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora. (Arnold said she doesn’t know how Weissman got them.) It was Weissman who turned them over to contacts in Montana.
Weissman declined to say who gave him the boxes, but an attorney for WTP in Montana referred to them as stolen property and tried to get them back before they became evidence in the trial to follow.
That wasn’t all.
In late 2010, after she left Montana, Arnold agreed to her turning in a Mac computer that they had given her in exchange for an older computer.
Arnold wiped clean the hard drive on the Mac before giving it to WTP. But WTP didn’t do the same with the computer they gave her. It held more documents detailing the group’s illegal coordination with candidate campaigns.
By then, the boxes were catching attention, both in Montana from journalist John Adams, now of the Montana Free Press, and from news outlet ProPublica and the PBS show Frontline. The latter two were collaborating on a story on Montana’s campaign finance system and WTP and contacted Arnold, who gave them the files from the WTP computer.
At that time, Arnold did not want to go on the record for fear of retribution. But then came Adams’ stories, as well as the Frontline program, which aired in 2012.
After that, Montana’s attorney general got busy. In 2016, a special prosecutor working for the attorney general contacted Arnold and offered her immunity in exchange for testimony in a criminal trial against Montana state Rep. Art Wittich, one of the candidates who worked with WTP.
What happened next? No spoilers here. You’ll have to watch the movie.
Arnold will face off against Wittich again next month in another campaign finance trial tied to the coordination with WTP, although this time Wittick is the attorney, not the defendant. “He’s got a bit of an ax to grind,” Arnold said.
Arnold’s fear of political retribution appears to have come true. She said she hasn’t had a political client since she testified in 2016.
As to the movie, Arnold said she believes it is fairly balanced. “It could have gone one way but it showed that Democrats are involved in this too.”
As for Colorado’s campaign finance system, she thinks the state needs to reform how it decides whether or not campaign finance violations go forward. Arnold would also like to see higher campaign finance limits for candidates, so long as there is full disclosure.
And while she likes the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which bars restrictions on political advertising by businesses, labor unions and other special-interest groups, she doesn’t like the lack of disclosure, which she says allows much more room for influence on issues by outside, dark money groups.
“I don’t care if you give a million dollars to a candidate as long as you disclose it,” she said.