Art Wittich, the Montana Senate Majority Leader and Tea Party stalwart, has been in court lately to try to get what he believes is rightfully his.
Wittich, a lawyer, had once provided legal services to a Bozeman couple. There was an outstanding balance of $93.99 that the couple had not paid Wittich. Wittich was not going to abandon the matter, and not only collected the debt but got himself a tidy reward, an additional several thousand dollars.
It appears, as best I can tell from a not-very-clearly-drafted court opinion (the link to the decision is below), that Wittich quietly got a default legal judgment against the couple, for the $93.99, even as his office was in talks with the couple over possibly arriving at a settlement over this piddling amount of money. After successfully getting the judgment, he began efforts to collect it. After some time, he managed to persuade the court to award him not only the $93.99, but $2,900 more for “fees, costs and interests” that he claimed to have incurred as a result of spending his time trying to collect the $93.99.
A divided state Supreme Court, shockingly, upheld the judgment. Justice Cotter dissented, calling the decision [UPDATED pdf] “unconscionable” and an “affront,” scolding Wittich for “financial carnage wreaked upon [the Bozeman couple] for their refusal to pay a disputed $93.” Justice Baker grudgingly voted in favor of Wittich because there was apparently a contract, which Wittich had gotten the couple to sign, including a clause that allowed him, ultimately, to get this outrageous amount of money from them in the event of a collection action. But Justice Baker strongly cautioned him to review the rules of the State Bar which address lawyers and their billing practices, and are designed to prevent lawyers from fleecing their clients.
And Cotter notes that when the dust finally settles, the couple will probably owe north of $5,000 to Wittich, because Wittich will try to recoup additional costs from them, namely, his costs in litigating the case of the $93.99 in front of the Supreme Court.
In essence, Whittich did what he could, not what he should. Nice guy.
Oh, and one other point, which goes without saying: if Wittich ever thought he could run for statewide office, that dream he can now kiss goodbye.