Wittich trial verdict

From left, Art Wittich, with attorneys Quentin Rhoades and Lucinda Luetkemeyer, speaks with reporters after a court ruling on April 2, 2016.

James DeHaven, for The Montana Standard

The Montana Supreme Court decides many cases in which the law appears to be ambiguous. Former state legislator Art Wittich’s appeal wasn’t one of those.

Wittich, of Bozeman, who was convicted by a jury for civil violations of Montana’s campaign finance law, appealed to the state’s high court, claiming that the case against him was unconstitutional, that the judge erred and that the commissioner of political practices lacked authority to bring charges against him.

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld Wittich’s conviction for accepting in-kind campaign contributions from third parties that coordinated with his state 2010 Senate election campaign. The decision was unanimous.

In an opinion written by Associate Justice Beth Baker, the court rejected all of Wittich’s claims, concluding that former Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl “properly investigated a complaint filed with his office and did not violate any law when he filed an action against Wittich in Lewis and Clark County.” The court affirmed trial rulings of District Judge Ray Dayton and held the judge acted within his authority to enter judgment against Wittich in the amount of $68,232.58 — three times the amount of the jury’s verdict.

Wittich cronies have insisted that Motl pursued charges against Republicans because they were Republicans. However, the scheme that Wittich and the others participated in targeted Republican candidates in the 2010 Primary Election. Money from a national right to work group was funneled through a shadowy organization then called Western Tradition Partnership. Republican candidates who agreed with the national organization’s legislative positions got a valuable package of campaign support, including multiple mailings that attacked their Republican opponents.

Republican Debra Bonogofsky of Billings was the target of Western Tradition Partnership mailings that supported her opponent, Dan Kennedy. Bonogofsky filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, alleging that Kennedy and “others” illegally coordinated with and received political contributions from an organization that turned out to be Western Tradition Partnership.

As the COPP investigated, evidence showed that Kennedy and Wittich were among nine candidates who coordinated campaign support with Western Tradition Partnership. Motl charged all nine with civil violations of Montana’s campaign finance law. Most admitted the violations, paid a fine and moved on.

The misdeeds of Wittich and the other candidates had real effects on Montana’s election system. Bonogofsky, a political newcomer, lost her election. Republican John Esp, a veteran state lawmaker from Sweet Grass County, won the 2010 election, but did not seek a subsequent term, having been picked on and soured by the negative, illegal campaigning.

The case couldn’t have been tried without the efforts of COPP Chief Legal Jamie McNaughton and Gene Jarussi, who served as a special attorney general without compensation. The COPP budget (which is set by the Legislature and governor) doesn’t have money to take a case to jury trial. In fact, some Republicans attempted in the 2017 session to abolish the COPP. They failed because not all Republicans agreed that political spending should be an unaccountable free-for-all.

In 2015, while charges against Wittich were pending, conscientious Republicans and Democrats passed the Disclose Act, which Gov. Steve Bullock signed to increase transparency and accountability in Montana election spending.

The present COPP, Jeffrey Mangan, commended Bonogofsky, Esp and Karolin Rockvoy, who provided the COPP with information on Western Tradition Partnership’s Montana campaign operations.

As Mangan said: “Thanks to the thoughtful persistence of Montana citizens Debra Bonogofsky, John Esp and Karolin Rockvoy, Montana campaign finance and disclosure laws remain a strong and powerful ally for openness and transparency in Montana’s election process.”

The law is vitally important, but it won’t work without the support of honest citizens — candidates and campaign workers who speak up when they see wrongdoing, even if it’s easier to stay quiet.