By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief

District Judge Ray Dayton on Monday heard more than three hours of testimony in his Anaconda courtroom as he considers competing pre-trial arguments in a high-profile political corruption lawsuit.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl is suing Republican state Rep. Art Wittich alleging Wittich illegally coordinated with third-party nonprofit political groups during his 2010 campaign for the Montana Senate. The case pits the state’s top political cop, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, against one of the legislature’s staunchest conservative  lawmakers.

Dayton, who assumed jurisdiction of the long-running lawsuit last month, will take the testimony and arguments heard Monday into consideration and issue rulings this week.

Most of what Dayton heard Monday had already presented to the court in legal briefs.

Former Commissioner of Political Practices investigator Julie Steab responds to cross examination from state attorney Gene Jarussi.
Former Commissioner of Political Practices investigator Julie Steab responds to cross examination from state attorney Gene Jarussi.

On Monday he listened to testimony centered on the sworn statement of a former COPP employee who alleged someone deleted emails from her state-run email account that could be germane to the lawsuit. Julie Steab, a former investigator who worked at the commissioner’s office from January of 2011 until she quit in October of 2013, claimed there should have been emails in her state email account that illustrated Motl’s political bias against Wittich.

Steab also claimed that Motl, shortly after taking his post in June of 2013, had expressed a desire to “remove Wittich” and people like him from political office.

On the stand to dispute Steab’s claims, Motl said he did not delete any of Steab’s emails and denied ever making statements about Wittich to Steab. Motl said Steab was “the last person he would have said” that to.

Asked by the state’s attorney, Gene Jarussi, why that was, Motl responded, “Because I didn’t trust her.”

A witness from the state’s Information and Technology Services Division testified that the only person who could have deleted the Steab email archive, which was later recovered, was Steab, or someone with her log-in credentials.

Mary Baker, a current COPP employee, testified that she did not delete Steab’s emails. Baker testified that Steab was unhappy with the working conditions at the COPP office after Motl came on board in June 2013. Baker said Steab and Motl had a “personality conflict.”

Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, eventually withdrew a motion asking the court to throw out the case based on “spoliation” of the Steab e-mail archive, and instead asked the court to force Motl to produce the emails.

In a separate motion, Rhoades asked the judge to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction. Rhoades argued state law does not allow Motl to independently investigate candidates, such as Wittich, without a formal campaign finance complaint. Rhoades said no such complaint against Wittich has ever been filed, and so Motl’s lawsuit is invalid.

The judge will consider these issues and others before a final pre-trial order hearing in Anaconda on Thursday.

This story will be updated.

John Adams began his professional career in 2001 in Idaho Falls, ID writing and editing for a variety of trade magazines. He covered topics ranging from potato and sugar beet farming to skate park and playground construction and maintenance. Adams started his newspaper career as the city government reporter for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he covered the City Hall, police, fire and local courthouse beats. In 2005 he joined the staff of the Missoula Independent in Missoula, MT where he worked as a staff reporter covering a wide range of issues including the environment,...