HELENA — A jury trial gets underway Monday for a Montana lawmaker accused of pledging loyalty to the causes of dark-money groups in exchange for unreported and illegal campaign assistance that included direct mail to voters, fundraising tools and website design.
The civil trial of state Rep. Art Wittich will have implications beyond whether the Bozeman Republican is removed from office if the jury finds he coordinated with the groups in violation of state campaign finance laws. It could set a precedent for other open cases connected to a Montana campaign regulator’s theory that the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliates illegally traded a slate of campaign services for the loyalty of 14 hand-picked Republican legislative candidates in 2010 and 2012.
The case’s outcome also will influence a constitutional challenge of Montana’s campaign contribution limits, one of the first lawsuits in the nation seeking to strike down state caps since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that allowed unlimited independent corporate spending in elections. The case hinges on whether Montana can prove the limits — among the lowest in the nation — are preventing actual corruption or its appearance, and attorneys for the state have offered the cases against Wittich and other candidates as that proof.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl brought the cases against Wittich and eight of the other Republican candidates after an investigation that began when hundreds of pages of documents belonging to Right to Work affiliate Western Tradition Partnership turned up in what authorities described as a meth house in Denver in 2012. The documents contained bank records, copies of checks and the digitally scanned signatures of several Montana legislative candidates.
An investigation ultimately implicated the candidates and about a dozen nonprofit corporations registered as social-welfare organizations.
Motl found that the groups affiliated with or partially funded by the National Right to Work Committee selected candidates to whom they offered a campaign package called “the works” for free or for cost. That included a series of seven voter letters penned by employees at Right to Work’s Virginia headquarters, and fliers attacking the candidates’ opponents, according to Motl’s findings.
The candidates also were offered training, fundraising tools, voter data and website and yard sign design, according to employee documents subpoenaed by Motl’s office.
The National Right to Work Committee has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
The services provided are considered in-kind contributions to a candidate’s campaign, Motl said. Candidates cannot receive direct contributions from corporations under Montana law. They also broke the law by not reporting the contributions and by receiving donations in excess of the legal limit, he said.
Motl, who cannot enforce penalties himself, filed civil lawsuits against nine candidates that he said received the services in 2010. He discovered five others who received “the works” package after the four-year statute of limitations ran out, he said.
Cases against three of the nine accused candidates have been resolved without a trial. Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, settled out of court for a fine and agreed not to run for office for four years. Two state judges entered default judgments against state House candidate Joel Boniek and former Senate candidate Wesley Prouse, who did not show up to defend themselves. Both were fined and banned from running for office until they file corrected campaign finance reports.
Other litigation is pending against both the other candidates and the corporate groups.
Wittich’s case will be the first to go to trial. Wittich told The Associated Press in a recent interview that there was no corruption, no pledge of loyalty given and that Motl had no right to bring the case against him.
Motl has run amok with power by casting himself in the roles of investigator, judge, prosecutor and expert witness, Wittich said. He characterized Motl as a partisan Democrat who is out to snuff legislators leading conservative causes.
“Is that really what we want our system to be about?” Wittich said. “I think it’s a dangerous, dangerous precedent, which is frankly why I’m spending the money and the time to fight it.”
Motl has declined to comment ahead of the beginning of Monday’s trial in Helena.
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