With a trial date fast approaching, the two sides in a high-profile political corruption lawsuit are hurling sharply worded accusations of wrongdoing in recently filed court documents.
Both sides are calling on the judge to sanction their opponent in conflicting legal filings that set a bitter tone for the courtroom showdown scheduled for March 28 in Helena.
Anaconda District Judge Ray Dayton — who only recently took over jurisdiction of the long-running lawsuit between Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and Republican State Rep. Art Wittich — has to sort out the competing allegations before next month’s trial. Dayton will hear arguments on the recent allegations on March 7 in Deer Lodge in what promises to be a contentious proceeding.
The trial stems from complaints filed by a fellow Republican that Wittich and other Republican candidates improperly accepted corporate campaign donations and illegally coordinated with nonprofit political groups during the 2010 primary election. Wittich, who denies the allegations against him, claims in a recent briefing before the court that the state’s top campaign practices enforcer illegally deleted the emails of a former COPP investigator in an effort to destroy evidence relevant to the trial.
The state fired back with a vehement denial of the allegations and quickly followed that up with a motion seeking to penalize Wittich and his attorney for violating court rules.
This recent back-and-forth started in January, when Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the complaint against his client — or at least bar Motl from testifying in the case — for alleged “spoliation of evidence.”
Rhoades claimed Motl deleted or destroyed the email archive of former COPP investigator Julie Steab to eliminate evidence that would bolster Wittich’s claims of biased prosecution.
“[Steab’s] entire State of Montana email archives, authored during the course of her work for Motl, are now ‘no longer available,’” Rhoades stated, adding that, “the purposeful destruction of public records and information — which belong to the people of the State of Montana — is a felony.”
Rhoades also restated claims Wittich has made throughout the proceedings that Motl’s pursuit of the allegations against Wittich are driven by a liberal political agenda aimed at targeting conservative Republican candidates and lawmakers.
The former judge in the lawsuit, Jeffery Sherlock, has ruled Wittich can not use “selective prosecution” as a defense in the case.
Gene Jarussi, the attorney for the state, said in response that Wittich and his attorney “crossed the line” in their efforts to disparage Motl.
“This latest over-the-top salvo by Wittich goes too far,” Jarussi wrote. “Wittich and his counsel had an obligation, before signing this motion, to verify that it was grounded in law and fact and was interposed for a legitimate reason, as compared to a harassing one.”
Jarussi said no one currently working at the commissioner’s office deleted Steab’s emails, but evidence indicates Steab herself attempted to “purge” her email inbox shortly before leaving the office.
Jarussi submitted statements from a current COPP employee and a state computer expert that refute Steab’s allegations. The emails in question were preserved by the state’s Information and Technology Services Division, and chief information officer Ron Baldwin testified in a sworn affidavit that Steab deleted her own emails “by two deliberate actions.”
“I know that the owner of the email box (Julie Steab) carried out the email permanent delete (purge) because it was done through use of Ms. Steab’s personal sign-in login ID and password,” Baldwin said in a sworn statement.
Jarussi followed-up by filing another motion accusing Wittich and his attorney of engaging in a “relentless campaign to cast aspersions on the integrity, ethics and motives” of Motl in violation of the Montana Rules of Civil Procedure barring “dilatory or abusive tactics.”
“Wittich is certainly entitled to mount a zealous defense of the claims against him. But he is not entitled to inject factually unsupported issues and accusations of felony misconduct into the case without any repercussion,” Jarussi wrote in his motion asking the judge to administer “Rule 11 sanctions” against Rhoades and Wittich.
Jarussi said Wittich’s “pattern and practice of repeatedly injecting a defense that has already been rejected by the Court, and personally attacking COPP Motl in an attempt to distract attention from the allegations against him,” violates both the frivolousness clause and the improper purpose clause of Rule 11.
Jarussi asked the court to deny Wittich’s motion to dismiss the case and to bar Steab from testifying at the trial and to fine Rhoades. Jarussi also wants the judge to preclude Wittich from “inquiring into any matters related to personal animosity, bias, selective enforcement, or other improper motive on the part of COPP Jonathan Motl and to impose monetary sanctions against Rhoades.”
In an interview Thursday, Wittich reiterated his belief that the lawsuit against him is politically motivated and pointed to the recent filings as evidence that Motl and his attorney are trying to undercut his ability to defend himself.
“After they’ve attacked me for two years, they’re now making more outrageous statements to limit my defense in court,” Wittich said.
For his part, Motl said the blame for the Rule 11 motion seeking sanctions against Wittich and Rhoades is pointed squarely at the defense in this case.
“The parties are in a motion fight right now, but that motion fight was initiated by Mr. Wittich when he filed the spoliation motion to exclude my testimony,” Motl said.
The Montana Free Press is a statewide, independent, nonprofit source of in-depth news, information, and analysis. Visit montanafreepress.org for more information.
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