Former Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl reviews documents that connect the National Right to Work Committee to political campaign activities in Montana during the 2010 Republican primary election. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP

HELENA — A judge has ordered a pair of corporations to pay more than $1.76 million in fines for their roles in an illegal campaign scheme involving 15 Republican candidates running for state legislative offices in 2010.

The Sept. 17 default judgment in Lewis and Clark County District Court is likely the final chapter in a well-known political corruption case that spanned more than a decade, led to the largest-ever fine against a sitting politician in Montana, and was featured in the 2018 PBS documentary film Dark Money

District Judge James Reynolds ordered the third-party political group Western Tradition Partnership and Livingston-based Direct Mail and Communications to pay $881,955 in penalties for violating state campaign finance laws that prohibit corporations from contributing directly to campaigns. The judge levied an additional $881,955 fine against the companies for failing to report the illegal contributions. The judge also fined the two groups $500 each for not maintaining and producing records of their campaign activities.

The judgment is the largest monetary penalty ever assessed for violation of Montana’s campaign finance laws. 

However, the state is not likely to collect the money. 

Most of the defendants named in the lawsuit — including Western Tradition Partnership, Direct Mail and Communications and Drury Lane Consulting — no longer operate in Montana or have dissolved. (National Right to Work Committee and Montana Citizens for Right to Work were dismissed from the lawsuit due to a process-serving error, and Drury Lane Consulting formed after the 2010 election, so was not included in Reynold’s ruling). 

The defendants did not file a response to the lawsuit and did not participate in any hearings, resulting in the default judgment.

Jaime MacNaughton, the agency lawyer for the state Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, which brought the suit, said the ruling shows that Montana holds both candidates and corporations that violate Montana’s campaign finance laws accountable for their actions. 

“Now that we know what these things look like and have experience with it, we’ll be better prepared next time we see it,” MacNaughton said. “The wheels of justice do turn slowly. I’m glad we’re at the end of this and can put it in the past and move on to the next chapter.”

MacNaughton worked alongside former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and Gene Jarussi, a special assistant attorney general assigned to the case, to bring complaints against the Republican candidates named in the years-long investigation. 

Thanks to the improbable discovery of several boxes of internal documents from Direct Mail and Communications, Motl and MacNaughton identified nine candidates from the 2010 election cycle who improperly benefited from and coordinated with WTP and Direct Mail. Six additional candidates involved in the scheme were later identified based on records obtained from witnesses who testified during a 2016 civil trial against former Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. 

Wittich was among the Montana lawmakers whose illegal coordination with WTP and Direct Mail was revealed by internal company documents and records showing that he asked for, and received, a package of campaign services and contributions referred to as “the works.” 

After the five-day trial in April 2016, a jury determined Wittich did not pay fair market value for the services WTP and Direct Mail provided, a value the jurors estimated to be $19,599. In that lawsuit, the judge tripled the jury’s damages, and Wittich was eventually forced to pay $68,232.58 after losing his appeal to the Montana Supreme Court in 2017. It was the largest fine ever levied in Montana against a lawmaker in a political corruption case. 

Reynolds relied on the 2016 jury’s determination of the value of services WTP and Direct Mail provided to candidates when he issued his ruling last month. Reynolds multiplied the number of candidates determined to have received the contributions and services from WTP and Direct Mail — 15 — by $19,559. Reynolds then tripled those damages to arrive at $880,155. 

Motl, who left the Commissioner of Political Practices office in 2017, called Reynolds’ decision a “fitting end” to the long-running saga. 

“Nothing will ever bring this to a close, but it is closed as best you can,” Motl said. “As long as there is politics, and as long as there are human beings in the world, it will be necessary to remain vigilant, because money corrupts.” 

Motl said whether the state collects the fines is less relevant than the fact that the case came to a conclusion that reinforces Montana’s campaign laws. 

“I think that cultural statement is more important than any fine or any money,” Motl said. “It is a continuation of that statement: that we don’t like illegal campaign activity going on in Montana.”

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Montana Free Press was founded by veteran award-winning investigative and political reporter John S. Adams. John was formerly the Capital Bureau Chief of the Great Falls Tribune and a correspondent for USA TODAY. John is known as a dogged investigator and the host of the MT Lowdown podcast whose unbiased reporting has changed the shape of Montana politics. Contact John at jadams@montanafreepress.org, or follow him on Twitter.