By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
HELENA — State Rep. Art Wittich, the man accused of accepting illegal in-kind contributions and services from conservative nonprofit groups during his 2010 Senate race, took the witness stand in his own defense Thursday in Lewis and Clark County District Court.
Wittich is on trial in a civil lawsuit brought by Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who has accused the Bozeman Republican of illegally coordinating with groups funded by the anti-union National Right to Work Committee.
Thursday was day four of a scheduled five-day trial and it began with testimony from Motl, who fended off allegations by Wittich’s attorney Quentin Rhoades that he held a deep-seeded political bias against Wittich. Through questioning Rhoades attempted to paint Motl as an activist with a long history of working on liberal causes. Wittich, a conservative Republican, strongly opposed Motl’s confirmation in the 2015 Legislature.
Motl conceded that his only bias – which he called an “appropriate bias – was against the corrupting influence of “dark money” in Montana politics.
“Dark money as it was used in 2010 is a serious threat to the integrity of the Montana election process,” Motl said.
Motl referenced testimony from Wednesday, when former Republican Rep. Jon Esp, of Big Timber, told the jury that even after winning his 2010 election, he chose not to run for office again because of the “dirty campaign” waged against him by the Right to Work-backed groups.
If you have an undisclosed, unreported, secretive group of organizations working on behalf of [Esp’s opponent Joel Boniek]…doing what they did to a decent man, and that takes that man to a point where he’s not willing to serve the people of Montana anymore, you have damaged our election process for that candidate,” Motl said. “In addition you have damaged our election process for the people of Montana.”
Rhoades also attempted to get Motl to admit that there was no “smoking gun” evidence that proved Wittich requested special treatment from the Right to Work-backed groups. Rhoades asked Motl to show him the document that served as the “smoking gun.”
Motl responded there has never been a campaign practice case with as many smoking guns, and pointed to previous witness testimony, phone records, emails between Wittich and Right to Work staffers, to make that case the Wittich had engaged in illegal coordination.
C.B. Pearson, a Missoula campaign consultant and a longtime friend and associate of Motl, testified that in his expert opinion, the value of the services Wittich allegedly received from the Right to Work organizations totaled at least $22,000.
Chad Smith, a defense witness who said he runs a printing and direct mail company in Livingston, testified that in his opinion Wittich paid fair market value, if not slightly more for the services he admits he contracted from Direct Mail and Communications.
Wittich’s lawyers says he paid around $7,000 for consulting, website, and database services, a sum Wittich said was, in highlight, too much for the products and services that were provided.
Wittich took the stand twice during Thursday’s proceedings, once as a witness for the plaintiff, once as a witness for the defense.
The first time around Wittich struggled to recall specific details in his responses to questions from the state’s attorney, Gene Jarussi.
Wittich began many of his answers with phrases like “I don’t recall,” “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t remember” in response to questions about documents, missing emails, receipts, training sessions he attended, and his relationship and conversations with Christian and Allison LeFer, the couple who ran the Right to Work-backed corporations in question.
Near the end of the day the defense called Wittich back to the stand where he told the jury personal details about his past, his family, how he got into politics, and other personal details aimed at warming jurors to the defendant.
Under questioning from his own attorney, Wittich’s memory was much clearer that earlier in the day. Wittich responded with authority about how much he paid for direct mail pieces and website work, the problems he said he had with the LeFers’ company, and details about his “grassroots campaign.”
Testimony will resume Friday with Wittich on the stand. Wittich is expected to be the last witness to testify in the case. Closing arguments are expected Friday afternoon. One attorney speaking on background said the jury should have the case for deliberation by 2 p.m.