A jury Friday convicted sitting Bozeman state legislator Art Wittich of three counts of breaking campaign finance law. They deliberated for around four hours, and returned their verdict in the early evening. It was a week-long trial, but two years in the making by the political practices commissioner and prosecutor, Jon Motl. Wittich is the latest in a slate of GOP legislators to be brought down by a sordid big-money scandal in which a national anti-union group was literally handing out cash and favors to any GOP state candidates who needed it including: Pat Wagman, Mike Miller, Scott Sales, Tom Burnett, and Joel Boniek . Indeed as the Billings Gazette reported, there were “14 Republican candidates who got off-the-books help from Right to Work and affiliates in exchange for loyalty to their causes.” Now that Wittich has been found guilty, there remains the question of his sentence. Prosecutors will argue that he should be removed from office.
We are taught not to rejoice in the misfortune of others, so today we should resist the temptation to celebrate the conviction this angry ne’er-do-well for whom few democrats have any use. Rather, we should celebrate the fact that big corporate money from outside, the kind that has been illegally used to muck up our state’s political system, was finally held accountable by a political practices commissioner. That’s no small thing.
It has long been the opposite–campaign finance laws in Montana have been spottily enforced, sometimes simply ignored and often by very people who are tasked with enforcing them. Sometimes these individuals have even bragged about it. Republican Ed Argenbright, the political practices commissioner in the 1990s, actually testified at a hearing last year that he was greatly concerned that nowadays commissioners such as Jon Motl are trying to enforce all the campaign finance laws. Argenbright said he believed they were better left unenforced. That hearing, which was actually Motl’s confirmation hearing, featured many other right-wing knuckle draggers, all saying the same thing: we don’t like this business of enforcing the laws that regulate money in politics. It’s a real problem.
What they meant is that it’s a real problem that Republicans are always the ones getting busted for spending, or taking, big, unregulated and unreported corporate dough to influence elections. We’ve often heard the baseless charge by the Montana Republican party against Motl that he is “on a witch hunt,” and a part of a conspiracy with Democrats, because the people he prosecutes are usually Republicans. Well, that’s because they are the people breaking the law. Motl has chosen to go after the illegal corporate money in our system. Democratic and liberal groups spend big too, but they seem to play by the rules. The prosecution of Wittich, we should keep in mind, originated from complaints filed against Wittich by members of his own party.
And today it was no longer Motl, but a jury of Montana citizens and Wittich’s peers and selected by his own attorneys, who found Wittich guilty, pretty quickly. Were they, too, on a witch hunt, or part of a vast conspiracy?