Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office in Helena (MTN News photo)
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office in Helena (MTN News photo)
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices office in Helena (MTN News photo)

(MTN News-HELENA)  Montana’s top political cop, relying on a trove of emails and other documents, is alleging a clandestine group of political consultants and front groups broke state campaign laws when they helped conservative, Republican legislative candidates in 2010.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl also says these documents reveal that a prominent anti-labor group, the National Right to Work Committee, was the driving force behind these groups that operated not only in Montana, but other states.

“There is a group of entities organized around and with National Right to Work that provided unreported, undisclosed, paid personal services to a group of candidates in the 2010 primary elections,” Motl told MTN News this week.

Motl outlined the allegations in documents he filed in court late last week, as part of his civil complaint against state Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman – who bought services from one of the groups.

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Wittich’s case is scheduled to go to trial in late March before a Helena state judge, when Motl will try to prove that Wittich and the groups violated state campaign laws.

Motl says Wittich received services from the collection of groups for which he did not pay – and that those unreported services amount to illegal, corporate campaign contributions.

“What a candidate cannot do, and what a corporation can’t do is provide paid, personal services without charge to the candidate and without reporting and disclosing to the people of Montana the value of those services,” Motl said. “And that is what they did wrong.”

Wittich, however, says the case against him is “bogus” and “meritless,” and that the evidence unveiled this week should not be admitted in court.

In fact, Wittich has asked the judge to dismiss the entire case, on various grounds.

“The court should not waste its time, or a jury’s time, with this meritless suit,” Wittich told MTN News. “There is not one shred of evidence that I coordinated with a third-party, independent expenditure in my race, because I did not coordinate.”

Motl’s case against Wittich is not the first one delving into Montana’s Republican legislative primary elections in 2010, when a number of conservative candidates challenged Republicans they called “liberal” or not sufficiently conservative.

The groups, with names like Assembly Action Fund and National Gun Owners Association, aided the conservative candidates in their attempt to defeat the other Republican candidate.

Motl has investigated and pursued similar complaints against eight other 2010 candidates and the various groups. Two of those candidates have settled their cases and paid fines; two others have had initial court rulings go against them; four others have their cases pending.

Wittich, an attorney, is the only candidate actively fighting the accusations, which stem from his 2010 campaign for a state Senate seat in Bozeman.

He won the GOP primary and the general election that year and served as Senate majority leader in 2013. He decided in 2014 to run for the state House instead of the Senate again.

In 2010, Wittich paid about $9,000 to Direct Mail and Communications of Livingston, one of the several groups that worked on conservative GOP campaigns. The company handled several campaign mailings for Wittich.

Motl is alleging Wittich received many other services from the collection of groups and consultants, such as candidate training, advice, voter ID lists and website assistance – and didn’t report paying for them.

The emails released by Motl this week show numerous communications among the groups, discussing candidates’ campaigns and offering a campaign school from a business called Smart, Simple Campaigns.

Several emails are from Wittich to Christian LeFer, who ran Direct Mail, asking about Wittich’s website or other campaign issues.

Other emails include messages from National Right to Work staffers to LeFer, instructing or requesting him to carry out tasks aiding candidates in Montana and other states, and notifying LeFer and others about a campaign training school in Des Plaines, Ill., in July 2010.

The National Right to Work Committee did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment.

Motl is planning to testify at the March trial on how this group of campaign consultants and advisers operated behind a veil of secrecy – but even his status as a witness is being challenged.

Wittich says Motl is “not qualified to provide his biased opinions,” and should not be allowed to testify if a trial occurs.