Embattled Lawmaker Calls Dark-money Trial a ‘Lynching’

Republican Rep. Art Wittich accused of taking illegal corporate contributions

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — A Bozeman legislator accused of taking illegal corporate contributions said Montana’s campaign regulator is out to destroy his political future by rushing into a “lynching” of a civil trial.

Republican Rep. Art Wittich has filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court that would put on hold his March 28 trial if it is accepted. Last week, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl asked the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, calling it a frivolous attempt to delay that makes a mockery of the justice system.

“We’re in this big hurry to have a lynching. Why?” Wittich told The Associated Press on Thursday. He said he is entitled to invoke the rules of justice by appealing to the high court: “Am I entitled to any justice in this process at all?”

Motl accuses Wittich of taking in-kind contributions from corporate groups affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee during his 2010 campaign, such as letters mailed to voters and website design. Montana law forbids corporations from directly donating to candidates. Motl says Wittich also broke the law by not reporting the contributions.

Wittich denies the accusations and accused Motl of being on a political witch hunt against conservative lawmakers.

“Obviously he wants to destroy my political future,” Wittich said. “I think it’s a direct attack on my constituency, and I have to see it through.”

Wittich appealed to the Supreme Court after a district judge rejected his motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Wittich argues that the district court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case because nobody filed a complaint with the commissioner of political practices office that accused him specifically of wrongdoing. So Motl did not have the authority to investigate Wittich or bring a case to the district court, Wittich attorney Quentin Rhoades wrote in response to Motl’s motion to dismiss the appeal.

“You need a check and balance to the commissioner’s power,” Rhoades told the AP. “The check built into this system is that there has to be a written complaint signed by a citizen under oath.”

The allegations against Wittich stem from a complaint filed by Debra Bonogofsky against her 2010 Republican primary opponent, Dan Kennedy. The complaint accused Kennedy and others of taking corporate contributions.

District Judge Ray Dayton ruled that Motl has an obligation to fully investigate any other violations that arise from a written complaint. Although Wittich was not named in the original complaint, it did mention others were receiving improper report, Dayton wrote.

Once Motl knew that Wittich was one of the “others” mentioned in the complaint, he proceeded properly, Dayton ruled.

Motl said all of the pre-trial work is complete and the case is ready to go before a jury, but it’s up to the state Supreme Court whether the trial will go forward as scheduled.

“If there is justice, the matter will be tried fairly promptly,” he said.

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