By Matt Volz Associated Press
ANACONDA, Mont.- A Montana legislator can stay in office after a jury found he took illegal corporate contributions from an anti-union organization during his 2010 primary election campaign, a judge ruled Friday.
Instead, Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman was ordered to pay a $68,232 fine, plus court costs, for a total between $80,000 and $90,000.
District Judge Ray Dayton stressed that he is only imposing the will of the Legislature through its laws and that he must be cautious with any discretion he has in interpreting the statute.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl’s request that Wittich be ousted and not allowed to run again until he files a campaign report acknowledging he accepted illegal contributions goes against the Legislature’s intent, Dayton said.
“It requires a confession to hold office, and I think that kind of flies in the face of the right to a jury trial, the right to deny or to defend,” Dayton said.
Wittich has only about six months left in his two-year term after losing his re-election bid in this month’s primary. He has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, even after the jury’s April ruling.
Wittich lost to challenger Bruce Grubbs after jurors found the lawmaker took $19,599 in illegal and unreported in-kind contributions from the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliates. The contributions included campaign consulting, voter data, opposition research and website design, along with attack mailers against his primary opponent.
Montana law prohibits candidates from accepting contributions from corporations, and candidates must report all in-kind contributions they receive.
Wittich said he paid for and reported the services he got. Motl, who brought the civil case against Wittich, was on a political witch hunt against conservative legislative candidates, Wittich said.
Motl sought Wittich’s removal from office and asked the judge to fine him $144,900. Afterward, Motl said he was satisfied with the ruling and was unlikely to appeal unless Wittich does so first.
Wittich hurried away from the courthouse after the ruling and declined to answer questions.
“I need a few days to digest all this,” he said.
Later, Wittich’s attorneys released a statement that called Motl’s request for penalties extreme and an attempt to discourage his future investigatory targets from defending themselves.
“Today’s ruling checks those who try to use the courts as a means to punish their political enemies,” the statement by Lucinda Luetkemeyer and Quentin Rhoades said.
A Montana judge hasn’t removed an elected official from office in 76 years. In 1940, a Forsyth judge ousted Cascade County Sheriff Guy Palagi for violating the state’s Corrupt Practices Act by giving beer and tobacco to voters for their support in his 1938 re-election bid.
Wittich’s attorneys argued Wittich was running for state Senate in 2010, when the violations happened, but now holds a state House seat. Wittich can’t be removed from a seat that was not the subject of the campaign finance investigation, his lawyers said.
Motl’s attorneys said the law was clear and required Wittich’s removal after a jury found he broke the state’s campaign finance rules.
Wittich served one term in the Senate seat he won in the 2010 election where he was found to have taken illegal contributions. He was the Senate majority leader in 2013 and was elected in 2014 to the House.
Wittich is one of nine Republican candidates Motl has brought court actions against for coordinating with the National Right to Work Committee. His is the only one who has gone to trial.
State judges ruled against two other Republican candidates last year when they did not show up to defend themselves. Two others have settled out of court.
A separate civil case filed by Motl’s office is pending against Virginia-based Right to Work and its affiliated nonprofit corporations.
Montana overhauled its campaign-finance rules last year to require more disclosure from groups attempting to influence elections, particularly the so-called “dark money” groups that are registered as social welfare organizations and don’t have to disclose their donors are spending.
Those organizations played large roles in state elections immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections.
The state’s new campaign finance rules didn’t apply to Wittich’s case, since the violations happened before the 2015 law passed.
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