HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court Wednesday rejected an appeal from former state lawmaker Art Wittich in a landmark campaign-finance case, upholding a verdict that he accepted illegal campaign contributions in a 2010 state Senate race.
A District Court jury in Helena last year found that Wittich violated campaign-finance laws by accepting illegal, unreported help from several conservative political groups. District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda later ordered Wittich to pay $84,000 in fines and court costs.
Wittich, an attorney from Bozeman, asked the Supreme Court to vacate the findings and order a new trial.
He argued that the state improperly brought the campaign-finance complaint against him and that key testimony against him should not have been allowed at the 2016 trial.
Yet in a 5-0 decision, the high court disagreed, and said former state Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl correctly filed the complaint and offered mostly proper testimony on Wittich’s actions in the 2010 campaign.
“Although Commissioner Motl offered some legal conclusions, the majority of his testimony assisted the jury … by providing `actual, objective evidence showing coordination between’ the entities and Wittich,” wrote Justice Beth Baker for the court majority.
Wittich had argued that Motl, testifying as an expert witness, overstepped his bounds by offering legal conclusions – which are supposed to be decided only by the jury.
In an interview Wednesday, Wittich told MTN News he’s disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, which he said sets a “dangerous precedent.”
The decision allows candidates to be found to have violated campaign-finance laws without any solid evidence, he said, and instead “based on something as flimsy as the testimony of two liberal hacks” – Motl and C.B. Pearson, a Missoula campaign consultant who testified on the alleged cost of services that Wittich didn’t report.
Wittich noted that the jury found he didn’t report $19,599 worth of contributions from conservative groups – a number he said “was just clear out of the sky.”
“This is a number that I was supposed to have known and put down on paper to the penny,” Wittich said. “There is no way to have known that.”
Wittich, a Republican, also said he was targeted for his conservative views, and that Motl didn’t rule against Democrats who benefited from similar, allegedly coordinated campaign efforts by affiliated groups.
Wittich said he’ll now have to pay the fines and court costs, which he estimated will be more than $90,000, with interest.
Motl, whose term as commissioner expired earlier this year, told MTN News Wednesday that “justice was served” in the case and that the ruling upholds fairness in elections and Montana’s laws on disclosing campaign expenditures.
“I think the significance of the case is large and I think Montanans should be very proud of a system that produced justice in this manner,” he said.
Motl’s successor as commissioner of political practices, Jeff Mangan, also said Wednesday that the Supreme Court ruling essentially upheld Montanans’ right to know accurate and timely reports on a candidate’s spending and donors.
“It’s the candidate’s or the (political) committee’s responsibility to provide that information to all Montanans, and that wasn’t done in this case,” he told MTN News. “That’s what we fought for, and what the Supreme Court affirmed.”
Wittich was a state senator from 2011-2014, including a stint at Senate majority leader, and then won a term in the Montana House in 2014. He lost his re-election bid in 2016 in the Republican primary election.