(MTN News-HELENA) As Montana’s top campaign cop and one of his biggest targets prepare for a crucial trial on alleged campaign violations, they’re trading bitter charges over evidence and tactics likely to influence the outcome.State Rep. Art Wittich, a Bozeman Republican accused of accepting illegal corporate contributions and illegally coordinating his 2010 campaign with outside groups, says Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl destroyed email evidence from a former colleague who claims Motl had vowed to get Wittich “and people like him.”
Wittich says the judge should dismiss all charges against him, to penalize Motl for “spoliation” of evidence – or, at the least, bar Motl from testifying at the civil trial scheduled later this month.
Motl’s attorney calls the evidence-destruction charge “a lie,” accuses Wittich of turning the case into a “political free-for-all” and has asked the judge to sanction Wittich’s attorney for violating procedural rules against filing frivolous, untrue claims.
“This litany of unsupported allegations of personal misconduct against the commissioner of political practices have gone on long enough, and the latest accusation of spoliation of evidence crosses the line,” Billings attorney Gene Jarussi wrote in court filings last month.
The charges and counter-charges in the high-profile case will be center stage next Monday at a hearing before District Judge Ray Dayton in Anaconda.
Dayton has been asked by the two sides to rule on 14 pre-trial motions, including the requests to dismiss the charges, sanction attorneys on both sides and bar certain evidence.
Key elements of the trial – and whether it even proceeds – will hinge on Dayton’s decisions on the various motions.
Wittich, an attorney, is one of nine Republican candidates accused of accepting illegal campaign help in 2010 from operatives connected to National Right to Work, a anti-labor group.
Wittich ran for and won a state Senate seat in 2010; in 2014, he chose to run for the state House rather than re-election to the Senate.
Motl has said in court filings that the Montana-based operatives of Right to Work provided consulting and other campaign services at cost, which amounts to an illegal corporate contribution, and illegally coordinated their support. Montana law bars outside groups from coordinating with candidates, because that assistance could be an unreported or illegal contribution.
The charges against and investigation of Wittich and the other candidates spring mostly from complaints filed by other Republicans, who were targeted by attack mailers from groups affiliated with the Right to Work operatives.
Two of the accused candidates settled with Motl’s office; two others have lost court rulings. Five others have their cases still pending, including Wittich, who has mounted the most aggressive defense.
He hired Missoula defense attorney Quentin Rhoades and also is being assisted by a prominent Kansas City law firm that often challenges campaign-finance laws.
The most explosive of the pre-trial motions centers on allegations from a former investigator in Motl’s office, Julie Steab, that her office emails were destroyed after she quit in October 2013.
Wittich’s lawyers filed a statement from Steab that said when Motl became commissioner, he professed an agenda that included unseating Wittich “and people like him” and to ban them “from ever holding office.”
Wittich also wants to bar several potential witnesses from testifying at the trial, including Motl, saying his testimony on the charges would be “nothing more than (usurping) the court’s role to instruct the jury on the law.”
Motl’s attorneys – and state computer officials — say Steab is the only person who could have destroyed her emails. The attorneys also say her allegations of bias from Motl aren’t relevant anyway.
In fact, Jarussi is asking the judge to limit testimony only to whether Wittich violated specific campaign laws – and disallow comments on the motivations or alleged bias of Motl.
Wittich has “continuously sought to litigate matters having no bearing on these (campaign) issues and to turn this case into political theater,” Jarussi said. “He wants to make selective prosecution and ulterior motive his primary defense.”
Reporter: Mike Dennison