GUEST POST: Wittich Corruption Trial Underway

Art Wittich on trial for corruption.Photo Courtesy of Montana Free Press

By John S. Adams, Montana Free Press

The Montana Free Press is a statewide, independent, nonprofit source for in-depth Montana news, information, and analysis. Visit montanafreepress.org for more information.

A highly anticipated civil trial to determine whether Bozeman Republican Rep. Art Wittich violated campaign practice laws during his 2010 primary campaign got underway in Helena on Monday.

Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader and conservative stalwart in the state House, has been accused by, Jonathan Motl, Montana’s top campaign ethics chief, of violating state campaign finance laws. Wittich is facing allegations that during his 2010 Senate campaign he illegally benefited from corporate campaign contributions and services from organizations tied to the National Right to Work Committee.

After nearly four hours of jury selection the panel was whittled down to seven women and five men with two alternate jurors.

Gene Jarussi, the special attorney general representing the Commissioner of Political Practices, was the first to present his case to the jury. Jarussi said despite the seemingly complex nature of the case, the facts would clearly show that Wittich accepted illegal corporate campaign contributions and failed to report them during his 2010 primary campaign.

“The evidence will show Mr. Wittich received campaign donations worth thousands of dollars which he never reported,” Jarussi told the jury.

Jarussi said Wittich, a Bozeman attorney who routinely works on complex litigation involving state regulations and real estate, knows the importance of reading documents, keeping records, and paying attention to details.

“It’s impossible to conclude he didn’t know the score, that he didn’t know what was going on,” Jarussi said.

Jarussi warned jurors that Wittich’s defense would try to “muddy the waters” and make the case seem more complicated than it is.

“It’s not easy to follow this complex web,” Jarussi said. “We suggest when you step back and look at it in the the light of the day, it will be clear there was a violation of Montana’s campaign finance laws, which govern all political campaigns in the state of Montana.”

One of Wittich’s attorneys, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, in her opening remarks to the jury retorted that Wittich is a committed public servant who has been victimized by an overzealous government regulator.

Luetkemeyer told jurors that Wittich was “saddened” to receive a letter from Motl in January 2014 informing him he was under investigation.

“In 2010 [Wittich] volunteered to run for public office and worked hard to win the the general election by 70 percent of the vote,” Luetkemeyer said.

Luetkemeyer described Wittich as a committed family man and public servant who was shocked in 2014 to find out he was being sued by Motl.

“When Art held Mr. Motl’s letter in his hands…it was like the opening scene of a government overreach horror story,” Luetkemeyer told the jury.

Luetkemeyer told jurors they would hear from Wittich himself during the trial, and that Wittich would testify that he never coordinated with any outside groups, paid for all the services that were provided, and reported every expenditure.

“He worked hard, tried to play by the rules, and still found himself caught on the government’s cross hairs,” she said.

After opening remarks the court went into recess. When proceedings resumed the judge Ray Dayton informed the courtroom that one of the jurors had been dismissed citing a conflict that would not allow her to stay through all five scheduled days of the trial. One of the two alternates was promoted in her place, bringing the make-up of the jury to six men and six women.

The first witness to testify was a former National Right to Work Committee who worked in Montana in 2010 testified for the plaintiff.

Sarah Arnold, who said she paid by the Right to Work and worked under the direction of Christian LeFer, detailed the inner workings of a sophisticated, multi-layered campaign operation run by LeFer that involved high-end mail and printing house, advanced computer systems, valuable voter databases, walking lists, campaign websites, and a letter-writing mill that churned out campaign materials on behalf of candidates supposedly written by candidates’ friends and family members.

With Arnold on the stand, Jarussi walked jurors through documents that showed how the organization screened potential Republican candidates and then rewarded candidates who were “on board” with Right to Work’s “agenda” with campaign services. Arnold testified that vetted candidates who “did things the right way,” could see “thousands of pieces of friendly mail” coming into their district.

Arnold told jurors that the Right to Work organization worked directly with “14 to 16” Republican candidates in 2010, including Wittich. Arnold said she believed Wittich knew the specifics of the operation working on his behalf and was one of the “favorites” of LeFer, who ran the campaign.

Arnold will continue her testimony on Tuesday when the trial resumes at 9 a.m.

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13 Comments on "GUEST POST: Wittich Corruption Trial Underway"

  1. I thought I understood the “sideboards” for this case. But the testimony of Sarah Arnold let me know how niave I am about what goes on behind the scenes. This is detailed information that I’m sure the Right-wing legislators would have preferred was not made public.

  2. Kind of sloppy proof reading evident here.. but that aside. Is the trial open to the public?

  3. Kind of sloppy proof reading evident here.. but that aside. Is the trial open to the public?

    • Hi there Cuthbert. Sad to say I can’t argue about the sloppy proof reading. Every decent writer needs a great editor. It’s a little tougher since I had hand surgery on Monday and definitely struggle to type thus more typos. That said, if you or anyone you know would be interested in volunteering as a copy/proof reader, please contact me: http://montanafreepress.org/tips/

      Thanks!

      • Didn’t mean to be critical, just noticed some missing bits. Hand surgery is a pretty good reason to miss a few keys..
        and sure, I’d be willing to volunteer.

  4. The premise of the defense that Wittich is a victim of a politically motivated Commissioner of Political Practices falls apart when you consider the object of Wittich’s alleged law-breaking was a fellow Republican in a primary election.

  5. When you consider the Right to Work Committee and their connection to the Koch brothers going as far back as the father Fred Koch and his paranoia of Communism and socialism it should raise the “red flag.” With their influence on Politicians,it is easy to see how the states came to embrace the Right to Work Law. In reality the Koch Empire has become the very image of Communism he feared and his sons have adopted the same principals in their dealings. If continued they could eventually become the sole proprietor of America if they are not stopped.

    • Fred Koch’s “paranoia of Communism” didn’t seem to stop him from making a profit from fueling Stalin’s regime by making oil refineries for him after they lost business in Nazi Germany when the war there ended and had to find other means of revenue.

  6. Juries can’t be punished for their verdict and don’t have to follow the judge’s instructions. So this case could go either way, if the Jury understand their power.

  7. Thanks for your excellent reporting on this important effort to create clean campaigns in Montana. What should also be included that Political Practices Commissioner Motl acted on the 7 or 8 Montana Republican candidates or electeds who first filed the charges against State Senator Wittich due to these illegal efforts to unseat them because they weren’t conservative enough. Thank you.

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