Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl testifies in his lawsuit against Republican Rep. Art Wittich. Photo by Kimberly Reed.
By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
HELENA — Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl took the witness stand Wednesday in the jury trial of a Republican lawmaker Motl has accused of illegally benefiting from “dark money” contributions during a 2010 GOP primary campaign.
Motl, who is the plaintiff and is also serving as an expert witness in the case, told jurors that evidence his office has collected over the past five years shows Bozeman Republican Art Wittich coordinated campaign activities and spending with a host of corporations funded by the anti-union National Right to Work Committee.
Wittich has denied the allegations and has accused Motl of engaging in a legal-system “lynching” aimed at dissuading conservative Republican candidates from running for office.
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, spent nearly two hours questioning Motl.
Motl, the state’s elections and ethics enforcer, initiated the lawsuit against Wittich in January 2014. Motl said he found “sufficient evidence” Wittich and other candidates violated Montana’s laws barring coordination between third-party groups and the candidates’ committees. That initial finding was based in large part on Motl’s review of reams of documents recovered from a Colorado meth house.
Those documents belonged to Allison and Christian LeFer, the wife-and-husband couple who ran several political nonprofits in Montana at the center of what Motl described as a scheme to corrupt Montana elections. Those documents were stolen from a car the LeFers owned, were recovered during a police raid at a meth house and eventually wound up at the COPP office in Helena before Motl was appointed.
Rhoades spent a significant amount of time Wednesday questioning Motl about the “stolen private property.” Rhoades questioned whether Motl’s entire investigation into Wittich’s alleged campaign violations was based on documents Motl’s office came by because of illegal activity.
Motl said that once the documents were in the possession of the COPP, a public agency, they became public records.
Rhoades also suggested that Motl was biased against Wittich and Western Tradition Partnership — one of the groups at the center of Motl’s probe — because they were on the opposite sides of Motl in a 2010 lawsuit challenging Montana’s campaign finance laws.
Motl referred to WTP as “the very definition of a dark money group” and said he believes “they did a lot of damage to our election system” in Montana.
“I viewed dark money as the most substantial threat to elections in Montana in my 30 years of being in Montana,” Motl said.
In his direct testimony, Motl told jurors Wittich failed to produce records that, as a candidate, he was required to maintain as a matter of “public trust.” Those records included receipts, invoices and other documents that would have shown what Wittich’s campaign spent and received. Motl said Wittich turned over just 113 pages of records, of which 31 were bank statements. The remainder were campaign finance reports already on file in the COPP office, Motl said.
Motl also testified that phone records showed there were 15 phone calls, lasting a total of 153 minutes, from Wittich’s phone number to Christian LeFer’s phone number. Motl said that constituted contact and bolstered the case that Wittich was intimately involved in the activities LeFer’s organizations were illegally conducting on Wittich’s behalf.
Jurors also heard testimony Wednesday from a former Republican state lawmaker who said he refused to run for office again after the events of the 2010 House race.
Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, told jurors that LeFer threatened to run a smear campaign against him. Though Esp ultimately won the primary race against Livingston Republican Joel Boniek, he said the attacks he received from Right to Work-affiliated groups were so severe he decided not to run again.
“I was not going to put my family through something like that again,” Esp said. “My folks are still alive. It hurt them.”
Last year a judge fined Boniek more than $54,000 for illegally accepting more than $9,000 worth of in-kind donations from WTP and Direct Mail and Communications, businesses run by the LeFers.
Shawn Moran, Wittich’s 2010 primary opponent, also testified Wednesday. Moran said he wasn’t aware of the services Direct Mail or the other Right to Work-backed groups were offering candidates.
Both Moran and Esp said they had no idea at the time that their opponents were benefiting from an extensive and sophisticated campaign operation that included postcards, letters, walking lists, websites and other political services.
Moran said one group even placed a radio ad on the air before the election that gave out his home telephone number. He said after losing that race that he never threw his hat back into a political race.
The trial will resume Thursday morning with Rhoades’ continued cross examination of Motl.