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.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — A bison calf lunges into the mechanical livestock squeeze chute, bucking and kicking, its lashing hooves and horns clattering against the metal frame.
It struggles for half a minute, huffing, sometimes bleating in its alien enclosure. At the right instant, a Yellowstone National Park worker thrusts a lever and the “Silencer” squeeze chute closes its jaws, encasing the animal in a corset of metal bars and collars.
With the bison immobilized, a biologist notes the animal’s age and condition and collects a blood sample. The Silencer weighs the animal and after a few minutes releases it to bolt down a maze of alleys in Yellowstone’s Stephens Creek corral complex.
The calf gallops into a holding pen separated from its mother for what may be the first time. It has torn its sensitive horns off and bleeds from both sides of its head. Green feces smear its face. It wears a sticker on its rump — a number that links it to its vital statistics. This is the end of one bison’s trail in the northwest corner of the world’s first national park. Most wild bison trapped here are shipped to slaughter.
Such is the ignominy accorded to a beast the U.S. Senate has nominated as the national mammal, a noble player in Western history and the emblem of the very federal agency that’s supervising its demise. Because some are infected with the bovine disease brucellosis, stockmen deride bison as an infectious threat to their livelihoods and lawmakers classify them as a species in need of disease control. Keeping potentially infected bison off public grazing land north of Yellowstone helps ranchers ensure livestock health, cull supporters say.
Hunters just outside the park’s northern boundary have killed an estimated 410 bison so far this winter. Dozens of wounded animals escaped back to Yellowstone. And as the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary year, it contributes to the cull by capturing 150 bison in its own roundup.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk has seen enough, he said at a forum in Jackson recently. What goes on with bison at the park’s north border near Gardiner, Montana, he said, “would make most of you sick to your stomach.”
No room to roam
A park agreement with the State of Montana calls for killing 600 to 900 of the estimated 4,900 bison in Yellowstone this winter. Yellowstone began its trapping when the Montana hunting season ended Feb. 15. The park operation ended March 15.
“Many people are uncomfortable with the practice of culling bison, including the National Park Service,” Wenk said in a statement. “The park would gladly reduce the frequency and magnitude of these operations if migrating bison had access to more habitat outside the park or there was a way to transfer live bison elsewhere.”
While the park works to revise its plan with Montana, however, it rounds up buffalo and ships them to slaughterhouses. As bison amble north along the Yellowstone River to migrate to lower elevations and food outside the park, a drift fence directs some of them toward the capture pens at Stephens Creek. When enough congregate in a large pasture, workers close the gates. Later, Park Service cowboys cut large bulls from the herd and set them free; the 2,000-pound beasts would destroy the sprawling complex of corrals, processing chutes and pens.
The processing scene unfolds just after sunrise. Four mounted park rangers charge at 75 pastured bison, yelling, yipping and waving as they spur their mounts to gallop across the half-acre pen. An SUV helps the horsemen provoke the rush. In seconds the startled herd stampedes toward the pen’s far end where the enclosure narrows into a long, eight-foot-high plywood-lined alley.
In a frenzy of thundering hooves and tossing horns the herd crowds into the alley as a park worker swings a large stock gate closed behind them.
For about three hours park workers haze and prod the bison from alley to chute. Each animal eventually ends up at the mouth of the Silencer squeeze chute where a worker wielding an electric cattle prod urges the reluctant ones in.
Bison biologist Chris Geremia kneels beside a trapped bison’s massive head and gets to work. “We’ll look at the teeth,” he said. “You can age them up to about five years.”
He checks body fat. “We run our hand down the back of the animal.” He and a colleague draw blood. One of them slaps a numbered sticker the backs of calves.
“Ten-eight-zero,” ranger Brian Helms calls out from a catwalk atop the squeeze chute as the contraption weighs an animal. He’s given hand signals to indicate what pen the bison below should be hazed into. Workers on catwalks open gates to the appropriate pen as each animal is released into the maze of alleys.
After workers sort 75 bison, two shippers back horse trailers to a loading chute. Workers on the catwalks haze and prod 15 animals into one trailer.
“Hey, hey, hey!” herders yell. “Get them to go up front.”
The bison push, crowd, climb on one another.
“Hey, one more! Get it!”
“Got it, they’re in!”
A driver secures the trailer’s gate and adds a padlock and chain as an agent from the Montana Department of Livestock inspects the extra security.
Buffalo Field Campaign gets close
As he documents the scene, activist Mike Mease can’t hold back. “How do you sleep at night?” the co-founder of Buffalo Field Campaign asks the shippers. He’s not supposed to heckle the workers and they don’t respond.
Nor can campaign member Stephany Seay suppress tears. She sued the park earlier in the year seeking access to view Stephens Creek activities. “I promise you we’re going to stop this,” she tells the bison. “I’m so sorry. We love you.”
The bison responded, Seay said in an “Update from the Field” post on the group’s website. “They were the only ones telling the truth,” she wrote of the bison. “The audio coming from the buffalo, imprisoned and violated in the trap, was the stuff of nightmares.”
Buffalo Field Campaign has monitored bison movements, trappings and hunting around Yellowstone for 19 years. Nine thousand one hundred and thirty-nine bison have been killed since 1985, the group says. The campaign operates with volunteers in a frugal and communal grassroots effort based in West Yellowstone, Montana, along with a field-camp rental cabin in Gardiner.
After witnessing the Park Service processing last week, Mease climbs a knob in the evening to monitor a herd that’s moving toward Stephens Creek. As he looks into the sun, the stiff breeze tugging at his clothes, he’s hoping the bleating of captured calves doesn’t draw the lead cow to the trap. “It’s a sad day when you don’t want bison to be bison,” he says.
Lying atop a lookout knob with his eye to a spotting scope, 19 year-old volunteer Moritz Hartig reports numbers and movements. A native of Leipzig, Germany, he comes from a country where large-scale wildlife migrations are rare. Hartig’s parents had taken him to the Alps. Spectacular as the mountains are, there’s little more there but birds, he said. “I wasn’t really in touch with wildlife.”
So when he saw a documentary about Yellowstone National Park and Buffalo Field Campaign he became “pretty impressed” with the activists. “I was looking for something after high school,” Hartig says. “I always wanted to go to the U.S.”
In the wide-open West, he’s witnessing dynamics seen in few other places on the globe. “I’ve never been to a place with so much death and life at the same time,” he says. “There’s so much wildlife everywhere — that’s what’s good about this place.”
A few miles north of the lookout knob, down the Old Yellowstone Trail, two Park Service patrol cars later escort trailers full of bison until they are outside the park. There the trailers roll off the dirt road and onto Highway 89’s asphalt carrying the bison to slaughter.
Will bison be able to migrate?
The park is hoping for a change from a capture-and-kill operation it agreed to after settling a suit brought by Montana. It is working to update its cooperative management plan by this summer and is studying whether calves that test negative for brucellosis can become seed animals for tribal herds on Indian reservations.
“We’re hoping for greater tolerance of bison in Montana,” says Amy Bartlett, a park spokeswoman who’s repeated that phrase time and again this winter. “Bison should be treated as wildlife.”
Some stockmen remain rigid. They’re pinched between two government agencies: on one side the U.S. Department of Agriculture could seize a cattle herd that’s infected with brucellosis, on the other side the National Park Service that wants bison to run more freely.
The Marias River Livestock Association, for example, favors a Yellowstone bison population of 3,000 or fewer. Yellowstone believes the “food-limiting carrying capacity” of the park to be 5,000 to 7,000 bison. The livestock group seeks to separate bison from livestock “by space and time.” It wants authorities to haze bison back to Yellowstone in May, suppress brucellosis by vaccination and cull the herd.
Despite the continued resistance, “the conversation has shifted some,” Bartlett says. Several years ago the USDA relaxed its brucellosis-infection regulations to reduce impacts to Montana stockgrowers. It collapsed the area in which ranchers would see repercussions should brucellosis infect one herd.
“With this new designated surveillance area, it ensures the disease can be managed and it is not going to impact the entire state’s livestock industry,” said Stephanie Adams, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Buffalo Field Campaign itself recently honored Mont. Gov. Steve Bullock for expanding the area bison are tolerated outside West Yellowstone.
Yet old positions seem difficult to abandon. “There has never been a documented case of wild bison transmitting brucellosis to livestock,” Buffalo Field Campaign says. But that may not be a reason to justify wholesale natural migration even to public lands, Yellowstone responds. “The lack of documented transmissions is a testament to the diligent management efforts put forth by the state of Montana and the NPS to prevent co-mingling of bison and cattle during the time period when transmission is most likely,” the park says.
The capture operation costs Yellowstone $1.2 million a year, up to $100,000 of which is spent on shipping and distributing bison from Stephens Creek. The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which gets the meat, processed almost 120 animals last year, it said in an annual report. Tribal members received some 25,000 pounds. The cost for the program was about $2 per pound.
Conservationist Adams watched the processing last week and didn’t like what she saw. “It was an experience that I’m glad we were able to go watch,” she said. “I do not think it’s an activity that should be going on — this is not how we treat wildlife.
“I think there are opportunities … that will allow us to treat bison more like the wildlife they are.” But uncertain politics cloud the future. Depending on the shifting political scene, “we might be stuck watching what we watched this week for eight more years.” To reform bison management, “we need that political courage to get it done.”
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile.com. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming.
By John S. Adams
The Montana Free Press
The Montana Supreme Court in a 4-2 ruling rejected Republican Rep. Art Wittich’s appeal seeking a dismissal of a high-profile political corruption lawsuit.
Wittich, who has been accused by the state’s top political enforcer of “quid pro quo corruption” for accepting campaign services he didn’t pay for in his 2010 state Senate race, argued in district court that the lawsuit against him was improper and should be thrown out.
Wittich maintains Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl had no legal authority to bring the case against him because nobody has ever filed a political practices complaint against Wittich.
Wittich argued to the high court that Motl failed to satisfy certain prerequisites to filing the lawsuit against him, such as making a preliminary determination that there was sufficient evidence to justify prosecution of the action and perform a preliminary investigation.
Anaconda Judge Ray Dayton dismissed that argument last week, but Wittich appealed Dayton’s ruling to the Supreme Court in a move that threatened to postpone a highly anticipated jury trial schedule to take place in Helena beginning March 28.
Motl followed-up Wittich’s appeal to the Supreme Court with a motion asking the court to dismiss it on the grounds that the justices recently, and unanimously, ruled on a nearly identical legal issue in a separate case involving the commissioner of political practices.
In a three-page ruling published on the court’s website around noon on Friday, Chief Justice Mike McGrath ruled that the issues Wittich raised in his appeal are not immediately appealable before trial.
“We conclude that the issues on appeal are not matters implicating the court’s subject matter jurisdiction,” McGrath wrote. “…the arguments raised here are matters of statutory and administrative rule interpretation, not subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore, the District Court’s order denying Wittich’s motion to dismiss this case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is not immediately appealable.”
Justices Patricia Cotter, Michael Wheat, and Jim Shea affirmed McGrath’s ruling with Justices Laurie McKinnon and Jim Rice dissenting.
In her dissent, McKinnon accused the court of mischaracterizing Wittich’s argument when it stated “there is no contention that the COPP failed to exhaust statutorily required administrative remedies prior to bringing this action.”
“…[I]n fact, Wittich’s undisputed contention is that neither a complaint alleging Wittich as a violator was filed with the COPP … nor has the COPP issued a notice and order of noncompliance against Wittich,” McKinnon wrote.
McKinnon wrote that she believes “Wittich is entitled to have his motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction adequately briefed and considered by the Court.”
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, issued an email statement Friday expressing surprise at the high court’s handling of the matter, specifically the fact that the court suspended it’s standard operating rules allowing 11 days to file a response to a motion to dismiss. The court gave Wittich’s side seven days to respond to Motl’s motion.
“We were not aware of such a request having been made in this case, and we know of no order that had suspended the rules for this case,” Rhoades said. “Normally such matters, again per the internal operating rules of the Court, are put on the agenda for the Court’s Tuesday afternoon motions conference.
“In any event, we were of course disappointed the court dismissed the appeal, although we do agree with the reasoning of Justices McKinnon and Rice, who wrote in dissent. We are now looking forward to our day in court before a jury of Mr. Wittich’s fellow Montanans.”
It is not immediately known what the impact of today’s ruling will be on the jury trial scheduled for March 28.
Motl declined to comment on the order.
The Yellowstone Art Museum announces the opening of two uplifting spring exhibitions: Harold Schlotzhauer: The Shape of Motion; and The Falcon’s Eye: Nature Photography by Michael Sample. The former exhibition is the third in the YAM’s series of Montana Masters exhibitions, which focus on the work of a diverse selection of mature artists who have contributed significantly to Montana’s respected artistic reputation and traditions. The YAM is pleased to continue the series with the presentation of work by one of Montana’s most prolific and distinctive painters. With decades of experience behind him, Schlotzhauer continues to explore the intersection between the observable and the imagined, creating a vivid visual language that soars beyond the edges of the picture plane. His brand of Modernism is bold and playful, but dazzlingly serious in its intent to create engaging images that make the intangible real. Shapes, lines, and sweeping color dance together in choreographed movement to elicit a personal response from the viewer. Schlotzhauer’s visual language is inspired by myriad sources, including traditional Asian arts, graffiti, children’s toys, and the rhythms of nature.
The exhibition surveys 50 years’ worth of Schlotzhauer’s art exploration, beginning with his art student days in California, where he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree with high distinction in 1966 from California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, through his retirement from Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, after teaching there for 28 of his 41 years of teaching in higher education. He was subsequently appointed Professor Emeritus by the University. Since his retirement in 2008, Schlotzhauer has continued painting at his longtime Bozeman studio, which overlooks his home in the Gallatin Valley. This bold exhibition comprises colorful paintings, sculptures, kites, and various embellished skateboards, snowboards, balanceboards, and surfboards.
Complementing the abstract works of Schlotzhauer, The Falcon’s Eye is a long-deserved exhibition of photographs by publisher, philanthropist, and family man, Michael S. Sample, who was known widely for his extraordinarily sensitive nature photographs. Sample’s strong legacy of images is a testament to his adoration of the West. Though the YAM’s exhibition offers up but a miniscule fraction of Sample’s photographic record, visitors who knew Michael’s work best will find favorites that remind them of those published in his annual Montana calendar or other publications or, as he would have hoped, their own adventures in nature.
Through his photography, Sample captured the essence of Western wildlife and geography while revealing his own adventurous yet quiet nature. The subjects of his work range from the sublime view of a single wildflower covered in dew to an epic storm over the Rocky Mountains. In retrospect, this seems an apt analogy for the artist’s wide-ranging life’s work.
Admission to the museum is free to members. Members and the public alike are invited to celebrate these family friendly exhibitions at the exhibitions’ opening reception on Thursday, March 24th, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. There is a modest admission fee for non-members. The Shape of Motion remains on view through July 3rd, while The Falcon’s Eye continues through August 21st. Visit the museum’s website, artmuseum.org, to learn more about these and the museum’s other exhibitions and programs.
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