Judge to Decide Penalties in Next Phase of Dark Money Case

Must decide whether to impose the ultimate penalty — the removal of an elected official from office

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA – Now that a jury has ruled a Montana legislator took $19,599 in illegal contributions, a judge now must decide whether to impose the ultimate penalty — the removal of an elected official from office, which hasn’t been done by court order in 75 years.

District Judge Ray Dayton will decide Monday how to proceed with the penalty phase of the case against Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. On April 1, a jury found that Wittich took contributions from and coordinated his 2010 campaign with multiple nonprofit corporations affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee.

Among the issues to flesh out in deciding an appropriate punishment, Dayton will have to determine whether and how to apply a little-used state law that says a candidate convicted of violating campaign practices “must be removed from nomination or office.”

Besides removal as an officeholder and a candidate, Wittich could be fined triple the amount he took in illegal and unreported contributions.

Most campaign violation cases never see a Montana courtroom, with the great majority settled for a fine and an amended campaign finance report. That makes the high stakes in Wittich’s case unique to modern Montana politics.

“The law dealing with the penalties has been around for a long time, but this is the first time in decades that one of these cases has gone far enough to bring this law into play,” said University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone. “We’re not necessarily breaking new ground, but we’re breaking ground that has sat fallow for much of the 20th century.”

The last time a Montana judge removed an elected official from office was in 1940. Then, a Forsyth judge ousted Cascade County Sheriff Guy Palagi for violating the state’s Corrupt Practices Act by giving beer and tobacco to voters for their support in his 1938 re-election bid.

“The record shows that beer was distributed not only by the bottle, but by the keg as well,” The Montana Supreme Court wrote in upholding the judge’s ruling.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who brought the civil case against Wittich, said it is up to Dayton to decide the laws to be applied in the penalty phase.

“This decision is equally important as the jury’s,” he said.

The judge’s decision will set a precedent not only for the four remaining 2010 Republican candidates accused of taking illegal Right to Work contributions, but for future candidates and commissioners once Motl leaves office, Carroll College political science professor Jeremy Johnson said.

Wittich served one term in the Senate seat he won in that 2010 election where he was found to have taken illegal contributions. In 2014, he switched to the state House seat for which he is now seeking re-election against challenges from two Republican primary opponents.

His attorney, Quentin Rhoades, did not return a call for comment Monday. Wittich has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, and he has accused Motl of trying to destroy his political future.

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