First District Court judge DeAnn Cooney listens to a county attorney during a recent law-in-motion hearing. (Photo courtesy Thom Bridge/Independent Record)

New judge assigned to political corruption lawsuit

(photo courtesy Thom Bridge/Independent Record)

By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

The Helena district court judge Gov. Steve Bullock recently appointed to the bench has recused herself from presiding over a high-profile political corruption case involving one of Bullock’s staunchest critics.

According to court records filed Wednesday, Judge Ray Dayton, of Anaconda, will take over for Judge DeeAnn Cooney, who recused herself from the case on Friday.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl is suing Bozeman Republican Rep. Art Wittich, alleging Wittich accepted illegal corporate campaign contributions without disclosing those contributions.

The lawsuit stems from a 2010 political practices complaint Billings Republican Deborah Bonogofsky filed against her primary opponent, Dan Kennedy, in 2010. 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.

Wittich has vehemently denied the charges and accused Motl of engaging in a political “witch hunt” against conservative Republican candidates.

The lawsuit was scheduled to go to a jury trial on March. 28 in Cooney’s court in Helena.

Bullock appointed Cooney in November to fill the seat vacated by retired Helena District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, who had presided over the complex campaign finance litigation for nearly two years.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath, right, swears in Mike Cooney as Montana's 32nd lieutenant governor with Cooney's wife, Helena District Judge DeeAnn Cooney, at his side. - photo courtesy Gov. Steve Bullock's official Facebook page.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath, right, swears in Mike Cooney as Montana’s 32nd lieutenant governor with Cooney’s wife, Helena District Judge DeeAnn Cooney, at his side. – photo courtesy Gov. Steve Bullock’s official Facebook page.

One month after Bullock appointed Cooney to the bench, he appointed her husband, Mike Cooney, to serve as his lieutenant governor, the second such appointment in as many years. Bullock also appointed Motl to his job as the state’s top political watchdog in 2013, a post to which Motl was confirmed by the Montana Senate in 2015.

Wittich has been a staunch critic of Bullock and his policies during the last two legislative sessions. The details at the center of the Motl vs. Wittich lawsuit also served as the impetus for a new campaign finance law that Bullock signed last year.

The Montana Free Press first contacted Judge Cooney’s office on Jan. 29 seeking comment about the connections between the her and the governor’s office. Cooney, through her clerk, declined to comment for the story, which was first published on Feb. 1.

Billings Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann, who also chairs the Montana Republican Party, criticized the connections between the judge and the governor on Twitter.

Court records filed Feb. 3 in Helena District Court show  Cooney recused herself from the presiding over the Motl vs. Wittich lawsuit on the same day she was contacted by MTFP. Judge Mike Menahan, who formerly served as a Democratic representative in the state legislature, was assigned the case that same day but declined to take it. Judge James Reynolds, who prior to becoming a judge was a longtime partner of Motl’s in a Helena law firm, also declined the case. Neither judge gave a reason for turning down the case.

Dayton, who has served on the Third Judicial District bench since 2007, officially assumed jurisdiction of the lawsuit on Feb. 3.

“I’m sure that Montanans will be served ably by Judge Dayton,” Motl said when contacted Thursday.

Motl added that he hopes the trial remains on track for a March 28 start.

Reached at his office Thursday, Wittich declined to comment for this story.

A call to Gov. Steve Bullock’s spokesman was not immediately returned.