HELENA –Montana’s top political cop Friday asked a judge to throw the book at Bozeman state Rep. Art Wittich for violating campaign laws in 2010, saying Wittich should be removed from office and fined nearly $145,000.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said Wittich had failed to accept “any responsibility” for accepting illegal corporate contributions in his 2010 state Senate campaign and should face the maximum penalties.
“It is difficult to imagine a defendant who has taken less responsibility or accountability for his actions than Wittich here,” wrote Gene Jarussi, a Billings attorney representing Motl.
Jarussi also argued that Wittich’s actions “undermined the election process in Montana and the faith that Montana citizens place in the elections to be free of corporate corruption.”
A Helena District Court jury found on April 1 that Wittich accepted $19,600 in corporate contributions and failed to report those donations, as required by law.
Now, District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda must decide what penalty to impose on Wittich.
A hearing on the penalty is scheduled before Dayton June 17.
Motl’s office filed its recommendations for the penalty Friday and Wittich is expected to file his arguments later the same day.
The lengthy case and trial has been the highest-profile complaint before Motl involving a flood of shadowy campaign spending in Montana’s 2010 elections.
The complaints and Motl said several groups affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union group, coordinated to produce campaign mailers and other material that promoted conservative Republicans or attacked their Republican opponents in June primary races.
Motl said Wittich illegally coordinated with the groups and failed to report the full value of their assistance. He also said the groups themselves ignored state laws requiring them to report their spending.
During the trial and in public statements, Wittich denied the charges, saying he paid at least one of the organizations for any help he received.
Wittich won his Senate Republican primary contest and the general election in 2010. After serving a single term, the Bozeman attorney decided to run for a state House seat in 2014, and won. He’s currently running for re-election in House District 68 and faces opposition in the GOP primary next month.
Motl said Friday that state law requires that Wittich be removed from office and barred from the ballot, for violating campaign-finance laws.
He said Wittich should be barred from running for office until he pays a fine and properly reports the campaign donations he failed to report in 2010.
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, has said the removal-from-office penalty applies only to the office that is connected to the violations – Wittich’s Senate seat, which he no longer holds.
But Motl’s office said this interpretation of the law doesn’t make sense. Anyone violating the law could act to delay the investigation past the date of holding the office and thus avoid the removal penalty, Jarussi argued.
Motl’s office also asked for the maximum fine of three times the amount of illegal or unreported donations.
The jury and Dayton found that Wittich illegally accepted or failed to report a total of about $48,100 in donations and should pay three times that amount, plus a $500 penalty for not preserving certain records, for a total fine of $144,900.