By John S. Adams, MontanaFreePress.org
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.”
By John S. Adams
Courtesy of MontanaFreePress.org
HELENA — A highly anticipated civil trial to determine whether Bozeman Republican Rep. Art Wittich violated campaign practice laws during his 2010 primary campaign got underway in Helena on Monday.
Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader and conservative stalwart in the state House, has been accused by Jonathan Motl, Montana’s campaign ethics chief, of violating state campaign finance laws. Wittich is facing allegations that during his 2010 Senate campaign he illegally benefited from corporate campaign contributions and services from organizations tied to the National Right to Work Committee.
After nearly four hours of jury selection the panel was whittled down to seven women and five men with two alternate jurors.
“The evidence will show Mr. Wittich received campaign donations worth thousands of dollars which he never reported,” Jarussi told the jury.
Jarussi said Wittich, a Bozeman attorney who routinely works on complex litigation involving state regulations and real estate, knows the importance of reading documents, keeping records and paying attention to details.
“It’s impossible to conclude he didn’t know the score, that he didn’t know what was going on,” Jarussi said.
Jarussi warned jurors that Wittich’s defense would try to “muddy the waters” and make the case seem more complicated than it is.
“It’s not easy to follow this complex web,” Jarussi said. “We suggest when you step back and look at it in the the light of the day, it will be clear there was a violation of Montana’s campaign finance laws, which govern all political campaigns in the state of Montana.”
One of Wittich’s attorneys, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, told the jury in her opening remarks that Wittich is a committed public servant who has been victimized by an overzealous government regulator.
Luetkemeyer told jurors that Wittich was “saddened” to receive a letter from Motl in January 2014 informing him he was under investigation.
“In 2010 [Wittich] volunteered to run for public office and worked hard to win the the general election by 70 percent of the vote,” Luetkemeyer said.
Luetkemeyer described Wittich as a committed family man and public servant who was shocked in 2014 to find out he was being sued by Motl.
“When Art held Mr. Motl’s letter in his hands … it was like the opening scene of a government overreach horror story,” Luetkemeyer told the jury.
“He worked hard, tried to play by the rules, and still found himself caught on the government’s cross hairs,” she said.
After opening remarks, the court went into recess. When proceedings resumed, Judge Ray Dayton informed the courtroom that one of the jurors had been dismissed due to a conflict that would not allow her to stay through all five scheduled days of the trial. One of the two alternates was promoted in her place, bringing the make-up of the jury to six men and six women.
The first witness to testify was a former National Right to Work Committee employee, Sarah Arnold, who worked in Montana in 2010.
Arnold, who said she was paid by Right to Work and worked under the direction of Christian LeFer, detailed the inner workings of a sophisticated, multi-layered campaign operation run by LeFer that involved high-end mail and printing house, advanced computer systems, valuable voter databases, walking lists, campaign websites and a letter-writing mill that churned out campaign materials on behalf of candidates — supposedly written by candidates’ friends and family members.
With Arnold on the stand, Jarussi walked jurors through documents that showed how the organization screened potential Republican candidates and then rewarded candidates who were “on board” with Right to Work’s “agenda” with campaign services. Arnold testified that vetted candidates who “did things the right way,” could see “thousands of pieces of friendly mail” coming into their district.
Arnold told jurors that the Right to Work organization worked directly with “14 to 16” Republican candidates in 2010, including Wittich. Arnold said she believed Wittich knew the specifics of the operation working on his behalf and was one of the “favorites” of LeFer, who ran the campaign.
Arnold will continue her testimony on Tuesday when the trial resumes at 9 a.m.
As an adjunct to the Yellowstone Art Museum’s exhibition Harold Schlotzhauer: The Shape of Motion, which features many sports decks including skateboards, the museum announces an open call to all area skateboarders living in south-central Montana to compete in 360°, a skateboard design competition and exhibition.
Application forms and design templates are available at the museum’s front reception desk or can be downloaded from the museum’s web site: artmuseum.org. All completed entries must be received by the museum no later than 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, 2016. All family-friendly entries will be exhibited on the gallery walls May 3-29, 2016. Entries will be judged by museum visitors. Entries will be accepted in three age categories: 5-12, 13-17, and 18 and older. The winner in each category will receive a fully-loaded skateboard with their winning design applied to the deck Winners will be announced at a public event at the Billings Skate Park at date in June to be announced. Participants need not be present to win.
By John S. Adams
Mar. 28, 2016
After more than two years of allegations, counter-claims, investigations, and back-and-forth legal maneuverings, the high-profile campaign practices lawsuit between a Democratic appointee and a Republican state lawmaker will finally go before a jury on Monday.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl first brought the lawsuit against Bozeman Rep. Art Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader, in January 2014.
The high-stakes civil trial, which is scheduled for five days, could have lasting impacts on Montana’s campaign finance and disclosure laws and could cost Wittich his seat in the Montana Legislature.
“No public official has ever been so sued, and brought to trial,” Wittich said in a March 18 post on his official Facebook page. “No other case has allowed the…COPP to be the complainant, investigator, administrative judge, and ‘expert witness’ who can provide opinions. The district court judge also ruled that he doesn’t want the trial to be ‘about politics,’ and is limiting my defenses.”
Wittich says he’s the victim of a political prosecution orchestrated by a long-time liberal activist with close ties to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
Bullock appointed Motl to replace outgoing COPP Jim Murry in May 2013. The Republican-controlled state Senate confirmed Motl on a 29-21 vote on one of the last days of the 2015 legislative session.
The lawsuit against Wittich stems 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.
Motl says the facts in the case are clear and said he “appreciates” that the lawsuit is finally going to trial.
The jury will consider three main points during the scheduled five-day trial:
1) Was there activity by a corporate entity in Wittich’s 2010 primary campaign?
2) If so, was that activity coordinated with Wittich? and
3) If so, what was the value of that activity?
Anaconda District Judge Ray Dayton is presiding over the trial, which will take place in Helena District Judge Kathy Seeley’s courtroom at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse.
Dayton on Thursday said Motl’s attorneys will not be allowed to raise the issue of “quid pro quo” corruption to the jury. Instead the court will decide the corruption issue after the jury returns its verdict.
In a statement emailed late Friday, Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, called Dayton’s ruling regarding corruption “a stunning blow for Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathon Motl’s two-year crusade against” Wittich. “In the last four months, Motl has made numerous sworn statements and court filings claiming Wittich violated quid pro quo corruption rules, and pledged to testify to allegations ‘by opinion if necessary,'” Rhoades wrote in the email. “Under the order, however, Motl is not permitted to even mention the issue to the jury.” Motl said Dayton’s ruling doesn’t change anything.
“Everything that Mr. Wittich is facing is based on a campaign practice act violation,” Motl said. “Whatever fine he could potentially pay, what ever consequences he potentially faces, those remain the same.”
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning. After the jury is seated the attorneys for the state will make their opening statements, after which Wittich’s lawyers will lay out their defense opening statements.
Over the next three days both sides will be allowed nine hours of witness testimony. The full 18-hours of testimony is scheduled to wrap-up Thursday afternoon.
On Friday both sides will make their closing arguments to the jury and then the jurors are expected to begin deliberating by noon.
In addition to his lead attorney, Missoula lawyer Quentin Rhoades, Wittich is also represented by Lucinda H. Luetkemeyer, an attorney with the Kansas City, Missouri-based Graves Garrett LLC.
The COPP is represented by Billings attorney Gene Jarussi.
Awarded Accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums
Billings, Montana (March 22, 2016)–The Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM) has achieved accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the highest national recognition afforded the nation’s museums. Accreditation signifies excellence to the museum community, to governments, funders, outside agencies, and to the museum-going public.
Alliance Accreditation brings national recognition to a museum for its commitment to excellence, accountability, high professional standards, and continued institutional improvement. Developed and sustained by museum professionals for 45 years, the Alliance’s museum accreditation program is the field’s primary vehicle for quality assurance, self-regulation, and public accountability. It strengthens the museum profession by promoting practices that enable leaders to make informed decisions, allocate resources wisely, and remain financially and ethically accountable in order to provide the best possible service to the public.