A Bozeman lawmaker took illegal corporate campaign contributions in his 2010 state Senate campaign, a jury found Friday.
Jurors needed around four hours to determine state Rep. Art Wittich underpaid for an anti-union group’s campaign services, something Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl alleged amounted to the illegal receipt of an in-kind corporate campaign contribution.
Motl also accused Wittich of failing to properly maintain records and illegally coordinating his campaign with a network of “dark money” groups affiliated with National Right to Work, a Virginia-based nonprofit that’s made headlines for its often controversial backing of conservative political candidates.
Ten of 12 jurors sided with Motl’s findings on all three of those counts.
Wittich -- who denied taking unreported contributions and accused Motl of engaging in a political “witch hunt” -- faces removal from office as a consequence of Friday’s ruling. He and his attorneys declined to comment on the likelihood of an appeal.
“Today was a bad day for freedom of speech and freedom of association,” the three-term Republican said in prepared remarks after the ruling. “Montana is the only state that gives one unelected man the right to initiate a political campaign violation complaint, investigate it, bring it to court and then determine the penalty.”
Motl said the decision marked a “very important day for Montana,” one he said underscored every candidate’s right to a fair election.
“We heard from several (candidates) that aren’t running anymore because they felt the election process wasn’t fair,” the first-term commissioner told reporters in between hugs from family members and well-wishers. “We can’t have these conglomerations of corporations coming into Montana, choosing the candidates, sponsoring them and creating such an unfair advantage over the other candidate.”
Motl said those corporations would be prosecuted. He also expects an appeal from Wittich’s defense team.
That team on Monday told jurors their client was “a bit of a control freak,” who reviewed letters a Right to Work affiliate group proposed he send, but said he “never made an arrangement, explicit or implied” that an outside corporation would spend money to support his campaign.
Motl’s attorneys looked to cast doubt on that argument in closing remarks, telling jurors it “strained credibility” to conclude Wittich, an attorney, never talked about his campaign with the group, which shared members with another Right to Work-linked corporation he was then representing in court.
Earlier in the week, jurors heard from a pair of 2010 Republican candidates who faced primary challengers supported by Right to Work. One-time Wittich primary opponent Shawn Moran and former state lawmaker John Esp said they felt “picked on” by the group and agreed the experience soured them on politics -- a point Motl's attorney, Gene Jarussi, looked to sharpen on Friday.
“In a very real sense, the people of our entire state lose when people like John Esp don’t run,” he said, “and all that because National Right to Work came into this state with their operatives and their money. … They had a plan to just wreak havoc, and they did.”
Speaking toward the tail-end of testimony in his own defense, Wittich said protracted, much-publicized trials like his were more likely to discourage someone from seeking office.
“This experience far outweighs having any postcard sent attacking your character,” he said. “This is why people decide not to run.”
Wittich’s attorneys followed with a final appeal for a “smoking gun” proving their client had coordinated with outside groups, suggesting to jurors that if Motl had such evidence, he would've provided it.
Both sides accused the other of bias and cherry-picking evidence in their closing remarks, picking up on themes developed over four days of occasionally heated testimony.
Each side also called back one of their star witnesses, with Jarussi putting Motl back on the stand in an attempt to counter claims from a former member of the commissioner’s office, who testified Thursday she did not feel the need to investigate Wittich in connection with the 2010 administrative complaint that eventually sparked his trial.
Motl said that investigator, Julie Steab, didn't raise similar concerns when she had a chance to vet the complaint, which did not specifically name Wittich.
Minutes later, Steab retook the stand and told jurors that another member of Motl’s complaint vetting team had also expressed misgivings about the filing.
She earlier testified Motl said he thought “people like Wittich needed to be unseated and barred from ever holding office.”
Motl has admitted to only one such bias -- against “dark money,” or campaign spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors.
Each side called dueling experts to attest to the adequacy of campaign disclosures filed by Wittich.
Motl’s witness put a roughly $22,000 price tag on campaign services a Right to Work affiliate allegedly provided to the Republican lawmaker. Testimony from Wittich’s expert put the tally much closer to some $7,000 in charges he paid after receiving an invoice from the group in 2010.
In the end, jurors decided Wittich had accepted -- and failed to report or disclose -- almost $19,600 from Right to Work groups.
District Court Judge Ray Dayton, of Anaconda, is expected to rule on separate “quid pro quo” corruption charges leveled against Wittich in the absence of a jury. He did not set out a timeline for that decision on Friday.