HELENA — Dark-money groups’ influence 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, a state official told a jury Thursday.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl wrapped up his testimony in the trial of state Rep. Art Wittich with a sharp response to an allegation by Wittich’s attorney that Motl is biased against Wittich and dark money.
“Dark money, as it was used in 2010, is a serious threat to the integrity of the election process,” Motl said. He referred to former Rep. John Esp, who testified that he had walked away from politics after being the subject of attack ads prepared by groups who had aligned with his 2010 Republican primary opponent.
“Doing what they did to a decent man in that election, and that takes that man to a point where he’s not going to serve the people of Montana any longer, you have damaged our election process,” Motl said. “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 brought the civil case against Wittich, the Bozeman Republican who is accused of coordinating with and taking illegal contributions from eight corporations affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee. The groups are nonprofit corporations that are not required to disclose their donors or spending because they are classified as social welfare organizations.
The anti-union group 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.
Those services amount to unreported contributions from corporations, only one of which was registered in the state, he said.
Wittich has denied the allegations. His attorney, Quentin Rhoades, questioned Motl for several hours on Wednesday and Thursday, challenging Motl to produce evidence that explicitly shows Wittich asking for the anti-union group’s services.
Wittich testified Thursday that he hired a printing company called Direct Mail and Communications based on recommendations from other Republican lawmakers. He acknowledged that they mailed letters to voters on his behalf and designed his website, but he says he paid for the mailings and the site.
Motl said Direct Mail and Communications is one of eight corporations operating under the National Right to Work Committee that provided a wide range of illegal campaign services for hand-picked candidates.
He said Wittich did not report most of the services received and that Wittich undervalued those he did report.
Motl said dozens of emails and phone calls between Wittich and Right to Work staffers provides evidence of illegal coordination between a candidate and the corporations.
“This is the greatest amount of smoking gun I’ve ever seen as commissioner,” Motl said.
Wittich contends that he paid a vendor to produce voter letters and design a website for his campaign, and that he reported those services. Motl says Wittich received services far beyond what he reported in his campaign finance reports, and undervalued those services he did report.
Rhoades painted Motl and Wittich as political adversaries because Wittich opposed Motl’s confirmation in the 2015 legislative session. The attorney suggested Motl’s biases against Wittich led him to prosecute the legislator when the commissioner typically settles the cases out of court.
Wittich has been treated no differently than the eight other 2010 Republican candidates accused of taking Right to Work contributions in 2010, Motl said. Two of the candidates have settled and two others had default judgments entered against them when they did not appear to defend themselves in court against the allegations.
Wittich’s case is the only one of the nine so far to go to trial.
Rhoades also attempted to undermine the basis for Motl’s investigation against Wittich by telling the jury no citizen complaint naming Wittich had been filed.
Motl responded by saying the original complaint named one candidate who received dark-money services and said there were unnamed others. That triggered Motl’s obligation to investigate fully the extent of the groups’ influence on campaigns.