HELENA — A Montana legislator testified Thursday that his memory is hazy on the meetings, correspondence and payments from six years ago, but one thing is clear — he did not knowingly take illegal contributions from an anti-union organization during his 2010 election campaign.
Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, is on trial over allegations that he took in-kind contributions from corporations — which is illegal in Montana — and didn’t report them. The eight nonprofit corporations under the umbrella of the National Right to Work Committee provided a wide range of campaign services to Wittich and other hand-picked legislative candidates in 2010, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl alleges in the civil case.
If a jury upholds Motl’s findings, Wittich could be removed from office.
Wittich took the stand in the fourth day of the trial. He said he hired a Livingston printing company called Direct Mail and Communications to send thousands of letters to voters in his district and to design a website, and he spent about $8,000 for those services, Wittich said.
“I had heard from other Republicans in the Bozeman are that they had a good direct-mail campaign,” Wittich said.
Under questioning from Special Attorney General Gene Jarussi, Wittich said he could not recall several conversations, emails, campaign training programs or whether he paid for certain fundraising letters. But he strongly denied deliberately omitting contributions from his campaign finance reports or knowing that he was working with Right to Work staffers.
“It’s impossible to report what you do not know,” Wittich said.
Direct Mail and Communications was one of the eight corporations affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee, Motl said. It was owned by Allison LeFer, the wife of Christian LeFer, Right to Work’s operative in Montana.
All eight groups are nonprofit corporations that are not required to disclose their donors or spending because they are classified as social welfare organizations.
The groups, led by Christian LeFer, provided select Montana candidates in 2010, including Wittich, with campaign management and consulting, voter data, a direct voter mail program, mailers attacking opponents and other services, Motl said. The voter letters were written by employees in Right to Work’s Virginia headquarters based on profiles submitted by the candidates, former employees testified.
The other affiliated corporations sent thousands of additional mailers to voters both supporting favored candidates such as Wittich and attacking their opponents, former employees testified.
Those services amount to unreported contributions from corporations, only one of which was registered in the state, he said.
Wittich testified that he did not know the people he worked with were Right to Work employees.
Under questioning by Jarussi, Wittich acknowledged that he had filled out a candidate profile and sent photos and his scanned signature to the LeFers for their use, and that he received a list of voters in his district from them.
But he suggested that voter lists are common and that the candidate profile, photos and signature were used for the letters and website he paid for, not for other Right to Work purposes. He stood by a receipt from Direct Mail and Communications that listed a total of $500 charged to Wittich for consulting, data and website design — and said he was unhappy with the website.
“In retrospect, I overpaid,” he said.
Jarussi contends that the value of the services Wittich received from the Right to Work groups totaled more than $20,000.
Earlier Thursday, Motl testified that dark-money groups like Right to Work threatens Montana’s election process by driving good people out of politics and stripping the public of its right to know who is involved with campaigns.
His comment was in response to an allegation by Wittich’s attorney that Motl is biased against Wittich and dark money.
“You have damaged our election process for the people of Montana, because the people of Montana are entitled to know who is contributing and spending in candidate campaigns,” Motl said.
Wittich attorney Quentin Rhoades painted Motl and Wittich as political adversaries because Wittich opposed Motl’s confirmation in the 2015 legislative session. Rhoades suggested Motl’s biases against Wittich led him to prosecute the legislator when the commissioner typically settles the cases out of court.
The trial is expected to last through Friday.
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