HELENA –Republican state lawmaker Art Wittich told jurors Thursday he did not receive “any benefit” from several conservative groups supporting his 2010 Senate campaign – and knew nothing of most of their efforts.
Wittich, testifying on the fourth day of his trial on charges that he accepted illegal campaign contributions from the groups, said he received and reported only the campaign services that he paid for.
“It’s impossible to report what you do not know, especially when you do not know the value of it,” he said. “So I could not have reported anything that I did not know. I reported what I did know, which is what I paid.”
Wittich also is accused of illegally “coordinating” his campaign with the groups controlled by the National Right to Work Committee, which sent thousands of mailers attacking one of Wittich’s opponents in the 2010 Republican primary election.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonthan Motl, who brought the charges against Wittich, testified Thursday that numerous “smoking guns” of evidence showed this coordination.
“This many demonstrations of paid personal services, directed from people to (Wittich), this is the greatest amount of smoking gun that I have seen as commissioner,” he said on the witness stand.
Wittich told the Helena District Court jury that he had “no idea” about the attack mailers sent against opponent Shawn Moran, and saw only one of them years after the campaign.
The 12-person jury must decide whether Wittich violated Montana campaign laws in the high-profile case, which is one of several Motl has pursued against Republican candidates who ran in 2010 election. He alleges that the Right to Work-affiliated groups used undisclosed “dark money” to favor conservative candidates in GOP primaries.
Wittich, an attorney and state representative from Bozeman, is the only such case to go to trial.
If the jury finds that he violated campaign laws, he could be fined or removed from office.
Wittich has insisted he did nothing wrong and that Motl’s actions amount to a “witch hunt” against conservatives.
Motl’s lead attorney, Gene Jarussi of Billings, called Wittich to the stand Thursday, and asked when Wittich had contacted the people involved with the various groups.
Wittich repeatedly said he didn’t know precisely, or couldn’t remember details about when he spoke with them about campaign services he wanted to buy, such as direct-mail efforts, building a website or lists of voters.
Earlier in Thursday’s testimony, Missoula campaign consultant C.B. Pearson said he examined the services the groups provided Wittich.
The lowest possible estimate of their cost is about $22,000, Pearson said – about three times what Wittich ended up paying. Pearson was hired by Motl’s office as an expert and paid $125 an hour for research for the case and $200 an hour for testimony.
Under cross-examination, Pearson acknowledged that he had been friends with Motl for many years and had demonstrated publicly against one of the groups accused of helping Wittich – but that neither fact made him biased against Wittich.
A former investigator for Motl’s office, Julie Steab, also testified that Motl guided investigations toward the outcome that he desired and had said Wittich should be unseated and barred from holding office.
Motl has denied making such statements.
Reporter: Mike Dennison