By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
After more than two years of allegations, counter-claims, investigations, and back-and-forth legal maneuverings, the high-profile campaign practices lawsuit between a Democratic appointee and a Republican state lawmaker will finally go before a jury on Monday.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl first brought the lawsuit against Bozeman Rep. Art Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader, in January 2014.
The high-stakes civil trial, which is scheduled for five days, could have lasting impacts on Montana’s campaign finance and disclosure laws and could cost Wittich his seat in the Montana Legislature.
“No public official has ever been so sued, and brought to trial,” Wittich said in a March 18 post on his official Facebook page. “No other case has allowed the…COPP to be the complainant, investigator, administrative judge, and ‘expert witness’ who can provide opinions. The district court judge also ruled that he doesn’t want the trial to be ‘about politics,’ and is limiting my defenses.”
Wittich says he’s the victim of a political prosecution orchestrated by a long-time liberal activist with close ties to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock appointed Motl to replace outgoing COPP Jim Murry in May 2013. The Republican-controlled state Senate confirmed Motl on a 29-21 vote on one of the last days of the 2015 legislative session.
The lawsuit against Wittich stems from a 2010 political practices complaint Billings Republican Debra Bonogofsky filed against her primary opponent, Dan Kennedy. That complaint alleged illegal coordination between Kennedy and various groups that provided unreported campaign services. A subsequent investigation by Motl’s office implicated other Republican candidates who also allegedly accepted illegal campaign contributions from groups such as American Tradition Partnership and its affiliated corporations.
Motl says the facts in the case are clear and said he “appreciates” that the lawsuit is finally going to trial.
The jury will consider three main points during the scheduled five-day trial:
1) Was there activity by a corporate entity in Wittich’s 2010 primary campaign?
2) If so, was that activity coordinated with Wittich? and
3) If so, what was the value of that activity?
Anaconda District Judge Ray Dayton is presiding over the trial, which will take place in Helena District Judge Kathy Seeley’s courtroom at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse.
Dayton on Thursday said Motl’s attorneys will not be allowed to raise the issue of “quid pro quo” corruption to the jury. Instead the court will decide the corruption issue after the jury returns its verdict.
In a statement emailed late Friday, Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, called Dayton’s ruling regarding corruption “a stunning blow for Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathon Motl’s two-year crusade against” Wittich. “In the last four months, Motl has made numerous sworn statements and court filings claiming Wittich violated quid pro quo corruption rules, and pledged to testify to allegations ‘by opinion if necessary,'” Rhoades wrote in the email. “Under the order, however, Motl is not permitted to even mention the issue to the jury.” Motl said Dayton’s ruling doesn’t change anything.
“Everything that Mr. Wittich is facing is based on a campaign practice act violation,” Motl said. “Whatever fine he could potentially pay, what ever consequences he potentially faces, those remain the same.”
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning. After the jury is seated the attorneys for the state will make their opening statements, after which Wittich’s lawyers will lay out their defense opening statements.
Over the next three days both sides will be allowed nine hours of witness testimony. The full 18-hours of testimony is scheduled to wrap-up Thursday afternoon.
On Friday both sides will make their closing arguments to the jury and then the jurors are expected to begin deliberating by noon.
In addition to his lead attorney, Missoula lawyer Quentin Rhoades, Wittich is also represented by Lucinda H. Luetkemeyer, an attorney with the Kansas City, Missouri-based Graves Garrett LLC.
The COPP is represented by Billings attorney Gene Jarussi.