Montana Campaign Regulator Says Lawmaker Took Dark Money

Wittich is on trial over allegations that his campaign took illegal corporate contributions

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — The wide range of campaign services a Montana lawmaker took from eight corporate groups affiliated with a national anti-union group during his 2010 election campaign amounts to illegal dark money, the state’s campaign regulator told a jury Wednesday.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl laid out his case against state Rep. Art Wittich during the third day of Wittich’s civil trial.

Motl accuses Wittich of coordinating with and taking contributions from the groups affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee, giving the Bozeman Republican an unfair advantage that undermines the state’s election system.

It is illegal in Montana for a candidate to accept contributions from corporations. Motl also concluded that Wittich broke the law by not reporting the contributions and for taking contributions with a value over the state limit.

Wittich could be removed from office if the jury upholds the commissioner’s findings.

Wittich’s attorney attempted to undercut Motl’s argument by suggesting Motl’s biases led him to pursue his investigation. Wittich paid for and reported the services he got — more than $7,500 on letters to voters and website design, the lawyer said.

However, Wittich didn’t report the time and labor that was spent ghost writing and editing the voter letters, which were done from Right to Work’s Virginia headquarters, Motl said. Other unreported services included campaign management, thousands of additional mailers attacking his opponent, specialized voter lists and all the time and labor by the Right to Work staffers to complete those projects, Motl said.

None of the corporate groups reported its services as contributions or independent expenditures, and only one registered with the state, Motl said.

“That is dark money,” Motl testified. “It’s dark in every way you can get.”

Wittich received a package from Right to Work Montana operative Christian LeFer called “the works” that included those services and the direct mail campaign that involved sending thousands of letters to voters in the Senate district where Wittich was running, Motl said.

The commissioner said phone records showed Wittich called LeFer 15 times before the 2010 primary elections, and those contacts are evidence of coordination between the campaign and the corporate groups. Emails between Wittich and Right to Work staffers provided further evidence of coordination, Motl said.

Wittich attorney Quentin Rhoades cast doubt on Motl’s coordination theory by pointing out that Wittich’s law firm was representing LeFer’s Western Tradition Partnership organization at that time in a lawsuit challenging Montana campaign finance laws. That lawsuit ultimately resulted in Montana’s ban on independent election spending by corporations being struck down.

Those 15 calls could have been about the lawsuit, Rhoades said.

Wittich’s legal representation of Western Tradition Partnership, one of the eight corporations that Motl said is affiliated with Right to Work, also created a bias by Motl against Wittich, Rhoades said.

“The only bias I have is against dark money,” Motl said.

Rhoades repeatedly pointed out that Motl could not produce a document in which Wittich explicitly requested “the works” package of campaign services.

The trial is expected to last through Friday.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.