HELENA — The Montana commissioner of political practices said Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich broke state campaign laws by coordinating with and failing to report contributions from a conservative group during his 2010 primary election campaign.
Commissioner Jonathan Motl asked a state judge to weigh his findings and decide whether Wittich’s actions merit removal from office and from the 2014 election ballot.
“That would be the big penalty,” Motl said. “Is this significant enough to establish a public trust violation? If it is, the court decides whether or not to take the next step.”
The Bozeman Republican is running for the open state House District 68 seat against Democrat Ashley Stevick.
Wittich denied any wrongdoing and said he is confident the court will reverse Motl’s findings.
“I think it’s politically motivated by Motl to gag Republicans and conservatives before the primary and the general election,” Wittich said Tuesday. “I think he has ignored longstanding precedent on the definition of coordination. He’s making up the rules as he goes along.”
Motl’s findings are part of an ongoing investigation into Western Tradition Partnership involvement with dozens of Republican candidates in the 2010 and 2012 primary elections. Motl has concluded so far that at least a half-dozen candidates, including Wittich, did not report in-kind campaign contributions from and coordinated attack ads with the secretive conservative group in 2010.
“We’re at a pretty important point with politics in Montana on whether we’re going to allow corporations to be involved in politics and campaigns,” Motl said. “It’s a turning point.”
Western Tradition Partnership ceased its political activity after a state judge ruled last year that the group acted as a political committee and not an educational group exempt from disclosing its spending and donors.
The commissioner’s office investigates allegations of campaign law violations and determines whether there is sufficient evidence that a law has been broken. But the commissioner’s findings don’t have the force of law, so Motl filed a civil complaint against Wittich in district court in Helena Tuesday.
The complaint asks a judge to uphold his ruling and consider removing Wittich from office and the ballot, plus impose a fine three times the amount of the violation to be determined in court.
The case has been assigned to District Judge Mike Menahan, who was a Democratic legislator from Helena before being elected to the bench in 2012.
Motl already filed a civil case against another sitting legislator, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, for many of the same allegations Wittich now faces. Miller has denied the allegations against him. The case is pending.
Wittich is by far the highest-profile politician implicated in the investigation.
Western Tradition Partnership and its affiliates produced and distributed thousands of letters to voters for Wittich’s campaign, for which the campaign paid just over $7,000. That amount didn’t cover the cost of the letters, meaning Western Tradition Partnership provided Wittich with in-kind contributions that should have been reported but weren’t, Motl concluded.
In addition, Wittich and Western Tradition Partnership coordinated the timing of letters sent by the group attacking one of Wittich’s three Republican primary opponents, which amounts to illegal coordination with a corporation, Motl wrote.
Wittich said he simply paid what he was billed and that he had no knowledge of what Western Tradition Partnership was doing.
The commissioner also found Wittich failed to report three campaign checks totaling $2,602 paid to himself and failed to list some donors on his campaign finance reports.
Wittich could not recall those specific payments, but he said it is common practice for a candidate to make a campaign expenditure with a personal check and then be reimbursed for it later.
Western Tradition Partnership, which changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, is registered as a nonprofit corporation and has produced attack fliers against moderate legislative candidates in Montana since 2008. The group has brought several legal challenges against state campaign finance laws.