In the weeks and months leading up to the 2012 election, Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign held several conference calls with a political consulting firm that managed independent expenditures for several PACs involved in the gubernatorial race, raising questions about possible illegal coordination between the firm and Bullock’s campaign.
The governor’s campaign listed expenditures for conference calls on June 20, July 25, and October 20, 2012, as well as payment for travel expenses on February 16 and October 20, 2012, towards S&B Public Solutions, which according to business registration records with the District of Columbia, is the official registered name for Hilltop Public Solutions.
Hilltop is a political consulting firm that gained national attention in November for bringing a $500,000 pharmaceutical lobby donation to Montana through Montana Growth, a 501 (c)(4), the majority of which was reportedly spent on grassroots and grasstops consulting. Hilltop also received attention for orchestrating Montana Hunters and Anglers, a dark money group that spent over $1.2 million towards U.S Sen.Jon Tester’s re-election.
Six days after Bullock’s October conference call with Hilltop, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana (PPAMT) , which received funding from a Soros-affiliated super PAC, paid Hilltop to manage an independent expenditure campaign in support of then-candidate Bullock.
PPAMT’s payments to Hilltop after the call, listed between October 26 and November 7, included $13,736 in salaries for paid canvassers and $6,000 in “management fees.”
Other independent expenditures in that time period included $1,554 in reimbursement to PPAMT for Facebook ads in support of Bullock and against Rick Hill.
PPAMT also curiously lists paying Hilltop $4,500 for mailings in support of Bullock on September 21 in a campaign finance form that was supposed to cover payments between October 26 and November 19, possibly suggesting that the listed expenditure date is a typo.
Media Trackers was unable to contact PPAMT treasurer Suzi Kopec prior to publication, however Media Trackers uncovered that Hilltop Associate Molly Bell began advertising for employees to campaign for PPAMT on September 25.
Build Montana PAC, a Montana-based PAC run by the AFL-CIO, also reports paying Hilltop to handle independent expenditures supporting the Bullock’s candidacy shortly after Bullock’s conference call with the consulting firm.
Eleven days after Bullock’s October meeting with Hilltop, Build Montana paid Hilltop $9,000 for graphic design work, which is believed to have been used on a $128,884 mailing campaign supporting the governor, also listed on the same campaign finance report.
The AFL-CIO affiliated group also listed a November 7 payment of $12,230 towards Brushfire Strategies, a company that shares an address with Hilltop in Washington, D.C., for paid phone calls for “Steve Bullock for Governor.”
The Montana Conservation Voters (MCV) also lists similar independent expenditures towards Brushfire Strategies and Hilltop towards the end of the election.
MCV listed payment of $15,787 to Brushfire Strategies on November 8, 2012 for phone banking in support of Steve Bullock, as well as $1,500 to Hilltop on Oct. 15, 2012 for political mailers in support of Bullock.
Media Trackers contacted Hilltop’s D.C Office, and asked whether or not Hilltop and Brushfire were directly affiliated with one another, a receptionist at Hilltop denied ever hearing of the company, despite them sharing the same address and suite number.
However, Media Trackers was able to uncover an alumni newsletter from the University of San Diego that said Marco Guido, a current partner at Hilltop and alumni of the university, is a founding partner in Brushfire Strategies.
While Hilltop was managing independent expenditure campaigns in support of the governor, the campaign of Governor Bullock was also paying another Hilltop branch to handle their television advertisements.
Media Trackers found that the Bullock campaign paid $144,281 to Three Point Media, whose payment was mailed to Hilltop’s D.C. office, for television advertisements throughout his campaign.
Media Trackers also found that the media production company was founded by Hilltop Partner Mo Elleithee, who currently works with both companies.
Hilltop Associate Matt Peterson, who began working with Hilltop in 2011, says on his LinkedIn profile that his work at Hilltop focused on Bullock’s election.
“My work at Hilltop has been primarily focused on opposition research and independent expenditures during the successful re-election of Senator Tester and election of Governor Steve Bullock,” wrote Peterson, who also provided a link to a controversial super PAC television ad paid for by the Montana Hunters and Anglers.
Hilltop’s handling of both independent expenditure-funded campaigns and Bullock’s television advertisements may have been planned as early as 2011, when the campaign hired Eric Ohlsen for consulting and research services.
Media Trackers found that the Bullock campaign paid Ohlsen on two separate occasions in 2011 for consulting and research. Although Ohlsen owns his own Portland-based consultlting firm, based out of Portland, OR, his payment was sent to Hilltop’s D.C. office.
Despite working directly with so-called dark money operatives like Hilltop Public Solutions, Bullock spoke against dark money in Montana elections during his State of the State Address in late January.
“We have seen the rise of so-called ‘dark money’ groups that target candidates, yet refuse to tell the voting public who they really are and what they really represent,” Bullock said. “They hide behind made-up-names and made-up newspapers. They operate out of P.O. boxes or Washington, D.C. office buildings.”
“Montana deserves better.”
Phone calls and e-mails sent out to Hilltop and their employees were not returned prior to publication.