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The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed with a lower court’s finding that former Republican state lawmaker Art Wittich violated Montana’s campaign finance laws when he illegally coordinated with third-party political groups during his 2010 primary election campaign.
In a unanimous 5-0 opinion written by Justice Beth Baker, the state Supreme Court concluded that former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl properly investigated the case against Wittich, and they affirmed District Judge Ray Dayton’s decision to fine Wittich $68,232.58.
The case was widely viewed as a test of Montana’s campaign finance disclosure laws that require candidates to report all contributions from outside groups or individuals.
Former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl brought the case against Wittich in 2014. The lawsuit stemmed from a 2010 political practices complaint Billings Republican Debra Bonogofsky filed against her primary opponent, Dan Kennedy. 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.
Following a five-day trial in Helena in April 2016, a jury of six men and six women determined Wittich illegally benefited from corporate campaign contributions and services from American Tradition Partnership and other groups tied to the National Right to Work Committee.
Wittich all along maintained that he never had contact with anyone at the National Right to Work Committee and that he didn’t know he was benefitting from services he didn’t pay for.
Gene Jarussi, the Billings-based attorney who represented Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office in lengthy case said he was pleased with the high court’s decision.
“I’ve always felt the case was properly brought, properly investigated, properly handled by the district court and properly decided by the jury,” Jarussi said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I believed the Montana Supreme Court would affirm the jury’s decision and it has does so today.”
Wittich, who has remained defiant throughout the proceedings against him, repeatedly called the case against him a “witch hunt,” and claimed he was a victim of political persecution orchestrated by an over-zealous Democratic partisan.
Wittich reiterated those statements when reached by phone Wednesday.
“The case was a bogus case from day one, and it’s still bogus,” Wittich said. “It was brought by longtime historical political hacks, and the Supreme Court has now set a dangerous precedent that there are two sets of campaign regulations: one is enforced against Republicans, and the other is ignored for Democrats.”
Wittich said the case against him has already had a chilling effect on “conservative reformers.”
“It has silenced reform. It is intimidation against reformers,” Wittich said. “When you allow a biased enforcer to impose double standards, it has a huge effect. That’s by design. That’s their goal.”
Motl, who is no longer serving as the state’s top political enforcer, scoffed at Wittich’s characterization of the case as a partisan attack.
“Well that’s good spin, but it can’t be the case,” Motl said, pointing out the fact that Bonogofsky, the source of the original complaint, is a Republican.
Motl filed lawsuits against nine Republican candidates as a result of Bonofosky’s original complaint. So far there have been two court decisions, one jury decision, one Supreme Court Decision, and four settlements, Motl said.
“Nobody along the way has found that there wasn’t a significant campaign scandal involved, and that Mr. Wittich was front-and-center involved in that scandal,” Motl said.
Motl said with the Supreme Court decision “justice is served.”
“I think justice is particularly hard to achieve in election related cases. So that’s why this particular result is, I think, a good day for many Montanans,” Motl said.
Current Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said the Supreme Court’s decision strengthens Montana’s campaign finance and disclosure laws.
“The decision is good for the citizens of the state of Montana,” Mangan said. “It shows that we have strong, open, and transparent campaign finance and disclosure laws that folks should be able to rely on well into the future.”
Jarussi agreed that the decision affirms Montana campaign finance laws.
“Maybe more important to me, it shows that Montanans care that our politicians comply with the law, and if they don’t comply we will hold them accountable in our state,” Jarussi said.
The high court’s decision could be the final word in a high-profile case that has captivated Montana political observers for years. Wittich said he does not know if he plans to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court.
“At this point I’m still trying to digest it,” Wittich said. “It may be time to serve in other ways.”