Montana Senate leader asks judge to dismiss illegal contribution complaint

2014-06-23T14:55:00Z 2014-06-24T06:56:14Z Montana Senate leader asks judge to dismiss illegal contribution complaintBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Charges that state Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich broke campaign-reporting laws were filed improperly and should be dismissed, an attorney for Wittich told a state judge Monday.

Carrie Wasserburger, an attorney in Wittich’s Bozeman law firm, also argued that state Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl is “stretching and exceeding his … authority” to pursue a political agenda against Republicans.

“This behavior needs to be put to a stop, which is what we’re asking the court to do today,” she told District judge Jeff Sherlock of Helena.

Motl, who has made numerous filings in the past year alleging Republican candidates accepted illegal campaign contributions in 2010, said he’s following the law, and that the case against Wittich should proceed.

He also said Wittich is trying to make a “political argument” rather than one based on the law. Motl said his office pursues complaints that are filed, and that most of the current crop of complaints has been filed against Republicans — by other Republicans.

Motl said he has a duty to investigate complaints and enforce the law requiring candidates to report their campaign donations and spending, and that he properly filed civil allegations against Wittich in Sherlock’s court.

Sherlock took the case under advisement and said he would rule later.

The civil charges against Wittich, filed earlier this year, are among several Motl has brought against Republican legislative candidates, accusing them of illegally coordinating with so-called “dark money” groups to attack their foes in GOP primary elections in 2010.

Dark-money groups are usually nonprofit groups that get involved in campaigns but don’t divulge their donors, or sometimes their spending.

If the case proceeds, Sherlock will decide whether the charges against Wittich are valid and whether he should be removed from office as a penalty.

Wittich, the Republican state Senate majority leader since 2013, is running this year for a seat in the state House representing Belgrade. He has called Motl a “political hack” and asked Sherlock last month to dismiss the charges, claiming that Motl, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and others are illegally conspiring to remove him from office.

On Monday, Wasserburger said Motl ignored the law when he filed the charges against Wittich in District Court in Helena, rather than in Gallatin County, where Wittich lives.

The law requires the charges be filed where the violations allegedly occurred, after consulting with the local county attorney, and that by choosing to file them in Helena, Motl may be denying Wittich his constitutional right to be tried by a jury of his peers, she said.

Motl argued that Wittich committed a filing violation and that the filing occurs at Motl’s office, in Helena. Motl said he properly consulted with the Lewis and Clark County attorney and then filed the charges in District Court in Helena.

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