By John S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief
HELENA —It took a jury of six men and six women four hours Friday to find Bozeman Republican lawmaker Art Wittich illegally coordinated with non-profit third-party political groups during his 2010 primary election campaign.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, the state elections enforcer who brought the civil lawsuit against Wittich for violations of campaign finances laws, told reporters after the trial that the jury’s decision will have lasting impacts on Montana elections.
“We’re in a different culture now,” Motl said. “A jury of peers is saying that they understand that one candidate’s election has an impact on all of the people of this state, and on all the other candidates that are running. And they want fair elections. They want fair elections for the people of Montana and they want fair elections for all candidates.”
The jury found Wittich:
- Failed to maintain and preserve records of his campaign contributions from his 2010 primary election;
- Illegally accepted and received corporate contributions from his 2010 primary election;
- Failed to report all contributions, including coordinated in-kind contributions, in his 2010 primary election.
Wittich, who earlier in the day told jurors that Motl’s lawsuit against him “besmirched” his family’s name and “smacked of McCarthyism,” was defiant after Anaconda Judge Ray Dayton read the jury’s 10-2 verdict against him in Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena.
“Today was a bad day for freedom of speech, and freedom of association,” Wittich told reporters as he stood next to his lawyer, Quentin Rhoades. “Montana is the only state that gives one unelected man the right to initiate a political campaign violation complaint, investigate it, rule on it, bring it to court, support it through his own opinion, and then determine the penalty.”
Wittich declined to answer questions from reporters who gathered around the courtroom bar to listen to his prepared statement.
Gene Jarussi, the Billings-based attorney who represented Motl’s office in the more than two-year-old lawsuit, said he wasn’t surprised by the jury’s verdict.
“I truly felt that case went in well, is consistent with the evidence,” Jarussi said, “This is a topic for which reasonable people can disagree. To have 10 out of 12 [jurors], I think, speaks volumes.”
Friday began with additional witness testimony from Wittich, who was emotional on the witnesses stand as he talked about the toll the campaign finance litigation took on him and his family.
“I could see my name would be besmirched,” Wittich said during testimony of finding out he was under investigation. “I could see my campaign would be delegitimized. That my voice would attempted to be gagged and silenced on important policy matters. I could see it was going to have a huge impact on me and an emotional toll on my family.”
Prior the start of the jury trial portion of the lawsuit, Dayton issued a partial summary judgment finding that Wittich had violated Montana’s campaign finance laws in three other areas.
Dayton ruled in a March 22 order that the “undisputed facts” showed Wittich:
- Bought campaign materials without using his designated campaign account and wrote checks on behalf of the campaign he did not report;
- Failed to report a debt;
- Failed to report the names of individuals who contributed more than $35 to his campaign at two separate events.
While this jury trial phase is over, the lawsuit is not yet settled.
Dayton still has to rule on the quid pro quo corruption allegation, which remains unresolved.
The quid — or the value of the in-kind contributions Wittich received from National Right to Work Committee-backed groups in 2010 — was settled by the jury on Friday.
Jurors ruled that the total value of the services Wittich illegally received from nonprofit political groups who campaigned on his behalf amounted to $19,599.
Now the court will determine whether there was a quo — or reciprocation by Wittich for the services those groups provided.
Motl said Judge Dayton has the quid based on Friday’s verdict.
“He has money that was placed into Mr. Wittich’s hands through illegal sources,” Motl said. “The judge will have to find a quo. He’ll have to find that Mr. Wittich’s actions were either corruption, or the appearance of corruption.”
Motl said given the extent of the defense Wittich lodged in this case, a finding that there was quid pro quo corruption in Wittich’s case could have major impacts on Montana’s campaign finance laws.
“It’s going to be pretty hard for somebody to criticize that decision,” Motl said. “This case could not have been more contested.”