Rarely does a civil lawsuit garner the level of statewide attention as the ongoing legal battle between Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and Republican State Rep. Art Wittich.
The widespread interest in the high-profile showdown was highlighted this week by the many headlines that stemmed from pretrial legal wrangling in advance of a week-long jury trial scheduled for March 28 in Helena.
At the heart of the case is whether Wittich, while running for the state Senate in 2010, violated campaign practices laws by accepting illegal contributions from, and coordinating with, third-party political groups. Motl, the state’s top political enforcer, accused Wittich of “quid pro quo corruption” for accepting campaign services he didn’t pay for in exchange for favors in the Legislature.
Wittich contends he is innocent of the allegations against him and says he’s the victim of a political “witch hunt” conducted by a biased commissioner with an ideological axe to grind. Motl has no evidence, Wittich says, and is using this lawsuit to bludgeon political speech by conservatives.
Both sides in recent weeks blasted each other in legal motions before District Judge Ray Dayton, of Anaconda, who only recently accepted jurisdiction of the two-year-old lawsuit. Dayton held a hearing in his Anaconda courtroom on Monday to listen to testimony from witnesses and arguments from both sides in an attempt to sort out some of the most contentious points before the case goes to a jury.
In the end, Dayton considered
seven 14 pretrial motions dealing with a range of issues, including whether Motl should be allowed to testify as an expert witness at trial, whether a spreadsheet purporting to show Wittich wanted “the works” package from the non-profit political group should be admissible in court, whether Wittich and his attorney should be sanctioned for violating court rules baring abusive litigation, and whether the district court even has jurisdiction over the case.
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, maintains in court pleadings that nobody ever filed a political practice complaint accusing his client of any violations. Therefore, Rhoades argues, Motl had no authority to independently investigate Wittich or level allegations of corruption against him.
Dayton ruled against nearly all of Wittich’s pretrial motions and found his court did have jurisdiction over the matter.
“Wittich ignores that the commissioner has an obligation to fully investigate ‘any other alleged violation’…,” Dayton wrote in his March 8 order. “Although Wittich was not named in the original complaint, it did mention that other candidates were receiving improper support from third parties and that those candidates knew what kind of support they were receiving. Once it became known to the COPP that Wittich was among the ‘other alleged violations,’ it proceeded against him accordingly.”
By Wednesday morning Dayton issued rulings on seven of Wittich’s motions before Rhoades emailed the judge stating his intention to appeal Dayton’s order on the motion to dismiss to the Montana Supreme Court for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
“This appeal presents a really important question,” Wittich said in an interview Thursday. “The question is: ‘can an un-elected person with demonstrated bias basically initiate a administrative action against a political enemy without any evidence?’”
On Friday Motl filed a motion to dismiss Wittich’s appeal on the grounds that the high court had recently, and unanimously, ruled on a nearly identical legal issue in a separate case involving the commissioner of political practices.
Motl’s attorney, Gene Jarussi, in the motion accused Wittich of frivolously trying to stall the impending corruption trial.
“This conduct makes a mockery of our system of justice and, if allowed to go unchecked, allows a defendant to file frivolous interlocutory appeals ad naseum to perpetually avoid facing trial,” Jarussi wrote in a motion to the Supreme Court.
On Friday acting Chief Justice Patricia Cotter, in light of the pending March 28 trial date, issued an order shortening the usual 11 days the appellant is allowed under court rules to file a response. Wittich has until next Thursday, March 17, to respond to Motl’s motion to dismiss the appeal.
Wittich denied the appeal was intended as a stalling tactic.
“That was not the goal of the appeal,” Wittich said. “The goal of the appeal is to put this very important fact pattern and legal question before the supreme court before taking up everybody’s — including the jurors’ — time for a week-long trial.”
There is speculation among some political observers that Wittich may try using legal stalling tactics in an attempt to run out the clock on Motl’s term as commissioner, which ends on Dec. 31. If Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is unsuccessful in his bid for reelection in November, then presumably his Republican opponent, Bozeman tech mogul Greg Gianforte, would appoint Motl’s successor in 2017. That successor might be more friendly toward Wittich’s position, the theory goes.
Motl said he doesn’t see that as a realistic possibility.
“I cannot foresee any circumstance that this trial won’t happen during the time I’m commissioner,” he said Thursday. “The reason I say that is because there is justice in life. I say that after 30-plus years as a lawyer. It would be so unjust…that it won’t happen.”
Cotter’s order speeding up the time frame in which Wittich has to respond could be a signal that the high court intends to swiftly rule on the appeal. Earlier in the week it appeared Wittich’s late appeal might push back the trial date. However, these latest developments in this long and twisting legal road might still lead us to a March 28 jury trial in Helena.