HELENA — A jury of seven women and five men will decide over the next five days whether a Montana legislator took illegal and unreported corporate contributions during his 2010 election campaign, a decision that could mean the lawmaker’s removal from office.
Opening arguments were scheduled to begin Monday afternoon in the case against Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who is among 14 Republican candidates Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl accuses of trading their loyalty for campaign services by the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliates.
An attorney for the Montana commissioner of political practices says a state lawmaker received thousands of dollars’ worth of services from corporations that he never reported for his 2010 election campaign.
Special Attorney General Gene Jarussi told jurors Monday that Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman knew or had to have known what the groups affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee were doing on his behalf.
Wittich attorney Lucinda Luetkemeyer responded by telling jurors that Wittich hired a vendor and paid fair-market value for the services he received.
Luetkemeyer called the investigation into him by Commissioner Jonathan Motl a “government overreach horror story.”
Wittich’s case is the first brought by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl to go to trial. Wittich has said he did nothing wrong, and he accused Motl of selective prosecution for partisan reasons.
Motl was appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and confirmed last year by the Republican-led Legislature.
Motl’s investigation concluded that at least eight 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, voter data 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 lawsuits against nine candidates 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.
Before the trial, Wittich said there was no corruption and no pledge of loyalty given. He said Motl had no right to bring the case against him.
Cases against three of the nine 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 remaining candidates and the corporate groups.
Wittich’s trial is expected to last through Friday.
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