Wittich Claims Selective Targeting, Commissioner of Political Practices Says No
BY ROGER ROOTS
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, John Motl, has launched a series of civil lawsuits against some of Montana’s most prominent Republicans, alleging they received undisclosed campaign support from conservative nonprofit corporations during the 2010 Primary elections. While several targeted Republicans have shrugged off or settled with the Commissioner, Bozeman’s Art Wittich, a conservative state representative elected in 2010, and a prominent member of the legislature, has accused Motl of engaging in a selective political witch hunt aimed at persecuting conservative Republicans. Motl’s case against Wittich goes to trial in a Helena courtroom March 28. The allegations Motl lodged against Wittich were laid out in a 37-page summary filed in March 2014, including claims that Wittich’s campaign received a partic-ularized voter list from a nonprofit group (Western Tradition Partnership) without reporting it as a contribution, and that the campaign underpaid for envelope stuffing services from Direct Mail, a Livingston company managed by the wife of political activist Christian Lefer. That alleged underpayment (45-50 cents per envelope compared to Motl’s estimate that the service should have cost at least 56 cents per envelope) would constitute an unlawful contribution by a corporation to the Wittich campaign. Western Tradition Partnership (now American Tradition Partnership) features prominently in the allegations. Montana law prohibits corporations from contributing directly to a candidate’s campaign (although corporations may contribute to independent ad campaigns), and Commissioner Motl contends that WTP coordinated some of its promotional efforts to augment the efforts of candidates such as Wittich, Joel Boniek of Pray, Pat Wagman of Livingston, Dan Kennedy of Billings, Ronald Murray of Belgrade, Mike Miller of Helmville, Wes Prouse of Shepard, and Scott Sales of Bozeman. Two of nine Republicans sued by the Commissioner (Miller and Sales) have negotiated settlements. Two others (Boniek and Prouse) have defaulted by refusing to appear in court. Five of the suits are still pending—and the Wittich trial will be an important bellwether for how the remaining cases might play out. Current campaign finance law allows for independent PACs and groups to augment the advertis-ing efforts of candidates so long as the independent groups do not “coordinate” with the candidates. The line between promotion and coordination is a fine one. For example, many major Democratic and Republican candidates for President during 2012 and 2016 have been supported by indepen-dent super PACs managed by their former aides. It might also be noted that the area of campaign-finance regula-tion is of contested constitution-ality, especially among Libertarians. Many contend the First Amendment protects broad rights of ideological advocacy, political spending, broadcasting and publishing, even that most campaign finance laws are unconstitutional. Wittich told the Montana Pioneer that the ongoing nature of the Commissioner’s accusations had exhausted and taxed his resources. “The process is the punishment,” he said. Defending himself from the lawsuit required Wittich and his attorney to sift through 30,000 pages of documents. Wittich said that the litigation had already cost him “in excess of $100,000.” Wittich Describes Commission as ‘Orwellian’ Wittich is also crying foul over what he perceives as the Commissioner’s unaccountable power over Montana politics. He alleges that John Motl, a Democratic appointee with a history of activism for liberal organizations, is using the Commission as a means to sully the reputations of conserva-tives. While Motl has fined a few Democratic campaigns for minor campaign-finance offenses, Wittich said Motl uses the bulk of his office’s resources to focus on conservative Republicans and is “tilting the scales of political speech in a discretionary manner with no accountability.” Motl occasionally cites lack of resources while dismissing complaints filed against certain individuals and groups. Yet Wittich accuses Motl of expending vast taxpayer resources to investigate infractions by certain conserva-tives such as himself. The ability to pick and choose where to deploy the Commission’s resources, according to Wittich, gives Motl an “almost Orwellian control” over Montana politics. Motl, though, denies any political bent. He told the Pioneer that his focus on Republican primary races is owed to the fact that Democratic primaries have been mostly uncontested in recent years while Republican races have been fiercely competitive. And his campaign-finance allegations against Republicans were all initiated by complaints from other Republicans. Motl also denied that his prior practice as an attorney was solely dedicated to liberal causes. As an attorney, Motl said, he represented a diverse clientele that included Republicans and businesses. Motl also dismissed the notion that the low cost envelope and gifted mailing list accusations are trivial. The violations amounted to undisclosed contributions of “substantial resources.” At the heart of the allegations against all of the 2010 Republican Primary defendants, according to Motl, was an “orchestrated group of nonprofit corporations under the direction of National Right to Work engaging in wholesale paid professional services.” According to Motl, the National Right to Work Committee (acting through other groups such as WTP) coordinated mailings with certain Republican candidates to provide a one-two punch of mailings every few days prior to the 2010 primaries. Six days before the Primary, according to Motl, Repub-lican voters received mailings from pro-gun groups touting particular candidates; two days later the same voters received mailings from the candidates’ campaigns; two days later similar mailings came from another group, and so forth. Wittich Says Commissioner Has Exacted a Heavy Toll Prior to the allegations, Wittich was widely regarded as a likely future candidate for governor, congress, or other higher office. Wittich was the Senate majority leader during the 2013 legislative session and currently chairs the House Human Services Committee. He told the Pioneer that he still has not decided whether to run for reelection to his State House district seat in 2016. With five out of nine cases pending, the March 28 Wittich trial will be the main event in the larger set of campaign-finance cases brought by the Commissioner of Political Practices. The Wittich trial will be the first to test Motl’s campaign related accusations before a jury.