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Wittich trial

Montana Rep. Art Wittich listens to an attorney's question while testifying in his campaign finance trial April 1 in Helena.

HELENA — Jurors recently found a Bozeman lawmaker illegally coordinated with and received services from anti-union groups in 2010, but they won’t have the last word in the case.

That distinction goes to District Judge Ray Dayton, who on Monday is expected to pick a start date for the penalty phase of state Rep. Art Wittich’s high-profile campaign finance case.

Ten of 12 Helena jurors who decided the trial phase of that case found Wittich underpaid for an anti-union group’s campaign services, something Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl alleged amounted to the illegal receipt of an in-kind corporate campaign contribution.

They also sided with Motl on accusations Wittich failed to properly maintain records and illegally coordinated his campaign with a network of “dark money” groups affiliated with National Right to Work, a Virginia-based nonprofit that’s made headlines for its often controversial backing of conservative political candidates.

But it’ll be up to Dayton to decide, among other things, whether Wittich’s interactions with Right to Work created the appearance of corruption, as Motl alleges in arguments the jury did not hear during Wittich’s five-day civil trial.

Wittich, who has denied taking unreported contributions and accused Motl of engaging in a political “witch hunt,” could be forced to pay fines and court costs totaling six figures as a consequence of Dayton’s decision.

He could also be removed from office, something Motl said Montana hasn't seen since 1940.

That's part of the reason he and others said the case will continue to draw plenty of attention.

Four Republican 2010 primary candidates — the last of 14 state legislative hopefuls Motl has accused of similarly cozying up with a whole host of Right to Work-affiliated pro-gun, anti-tax and anti-abortion groups — are expected to keep a close eye on the ruling.

As are the plaintiffs in a long-running federal lawsuit challenging Montana’s campaign contribution limits, which count among the lowest in the country. Motl expects the jury’s findings against Wittich will bolster Montana’s defense in that case, one that could hinge on the state proving existing contribution caps help prevent political “quid pro quo” corruption of the type alleged against the three-term Republican legislator.

Political science professors predict Dayton’s decision will also be tracked by candidates and political operatives well beyond Montana, where they say the case could have far-reaching consequences.

“I believe that the case will have ramifications nationwide,” Carroll College politics professor Jeremy Johnson wrote in an email Friday. “ ... The majority on the jury determined that the defendant did violate the law on the books and the other issues raised by the defense did not appear to sway the majority of the jurors.

“I believe that sort of outcome will garner continued national attention.”

Quid pro quo

Wittich’s attorneys, for their part, hope proceedings won’t be nearly that dramatic.

They contend the state’s removal-from-office statute applies only to the office held in connection with the violations, Wittich’s former state Senate seat, and would not permit his ouster from the House seat he’s held since 2014.

“In our view, the case should be over except for some paperwork,” Missoula-based defense attorney Quentin Rhoades said on Friday. “The ‘quid pro quo’ issue was never submitted to the fact finder.

“We don’t think the statute allows for a second trial — and we intend to resist (Motl’s) apparent intention to have another one.”

Motl’s take could scarcely be more different.

In his view, the jury has already laid the foundation for corruption charges filed against Wittich by finding the lawmaker accepted -- and failed to report or disclose — almost $19,600 in in-kind contributions from outside conservative groups.

Motl’s attorneys are expected to point to a 2011 right-to-work bill introduced by Wittich as evidence of what the groups got in exchange for that sum.

“The quid is no longer the subject of opinion,” Motl explained. “We’re only talking about the quo now. … Does that (quid) create the appearance of corruption? Because then you’ve got the quo.

“I think the quo is there. I think it stands.”

Motl said he hopes to settle out of court with candidates who face similar Right to Work-linked coordination charges.

His office has litigated three such cases, including Wittich’s, and settled two others.

He advised four additional candidates to wait and see what happens to Wittich before moving ahead with settlement talks.

Wittich and his attorneys have declined to comment on the possibility of appealing that outcome.

Candidates nervous

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Meanwhile, the first phase of Wittich’s case may have already rattled some Montana legislative candidates.

Those candidates are allowed to give money to corporations in exchange for reportable campaign services, but are not allowed to receive contributions from any non- or for-profit corporate entity.

Such services — if unreported, coordinated with or underpaid for by the candidate — could count as an illegal in-kind corporate campaign contribution under state law.

During Wittich’s trial, attorneys for the state spent hours poring over surveys sent out by Right to Work-affiliated groups in 2010.

They argued the groups treated those surveys — which asked candidates for their position on everything from gun rights to labor and environmental issues —- as a kind of acid test to determine which candidates would receive ill-gotten campaign printing, consulting, training and other services in upcoming primary contests.

The state’s focus on the surveys did not go unnoticed by those who still send out similar campaign questionnaires.

The head of one such group, the Montana Shooting Sports Association, looked to ease fears about the surveys in an April 6 letter to statehouse hopefuls, citing a 2014 advisory opinion from Motl that cleared the practice.

“Having publicly declared in a published (opinion) that completing and returning an interest groups' (questionnaire) does not create grounds for enforcement action by his office, it will be extremely unlikely and difficult or impossible for the Commissioner to do the opposite, or make stick any enforcement based on a (questionnaire),” association president Gary Marbut wrote. “Therefore, you may ignore the rumor-quality advice you might have received to not complete (questionnaires) for fear of enforcement action by the COPP.”

Marbut explained Friday he’d heard secondhand about concerns from “probably a dozen” candidates who balked at filling out a corporation-sponsored survey.

A one-time Right to Work staffer called to testify in Wittich’s trial said candidates had to sign a survey committing to the group’s agenda before they could receive “the works” — campaign services that included everything from initial fundraising contracts to a late-stage direct mail blitz aimed at primary opponents.

That staffer’s former boss, Christian LeFer, disputed the claim in an affidavit attached to a federal lawsuit on Monday.

LeFer said he didn’t recall using the term "the works” and denied ever making an arrangement “explicit or implied” to exchange campaign services for lawmaking favors.

Motl said candidates who receive a survey have nothing to worry about, provided they stick to just filling it out.

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