Montana Supreme Court denies Wittich appeal in campaign corruption case

Art Wittich appeared on the witness stand during his trial on political corruption charges in 2016. (Kimberly Reed/Last Best News)

The Montana Supreme Court has denied former state Sen. Art Wittich’s four-part appeal of his conviction on charges of violating Montana’s campaign finance laws.

Justice Beth Baker said in the 42-page opinion that the high court affirmed all of the District Court judge’s rulings in the case, and it found that former state Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl did nothing illegal in filing the action against Wittich in District Court.

The Supreme Court had determined earlier that the appeal would be decided by a five-justice panel on the basis of briefs filed with the high court. All five justices concurred with the ruling. Besides Baker, justices on the panel were Laurie McKinnon, Michael Wheat, Jim Rice and Chief Justice McGrath.

Motl filed suit against Wittich in 2014, charging that he broke campaign finance rules during a primary campaign in Senate District 35 in 2010. After a five-day trial in Lewis and Clark County District Court in 2016, a jury concluded that Wittich, as summarized in the high court ruling, “accepted and failed to report nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions, including coordinated in-kind contributions.”

Motl filed lawsuits against nine candidates accused of taking illegal contributions from the National Right to Work Committee or its affiliates in the 2010 election. Wittich was the only one to have gone to trial. Under Montana law, candidates cannot accept contributions from corporations, and they must report all in-kind contributions they receive.

The District Court subsequently denied Wittich’s motion for a new trial and ordered him to pay a fine of $58,797, three times more than the verdict amount.

On appeal, Wittich argued that Motl violated statutory procedures in filing the lawsuit against him and that the District Court judge abused his discretion by denying Wittich’s motions to exclude two witnesses from testifying as experts. He also said the judge abused his discretion by denying Wittich’s motion for a new trial and by trebling the verdict amount.

The Supreme Court rejected all four assertions. It found nothing wrong with the way Motl filed the complaint and it affirmed the district court’s trial rulings, including the decision to exclude two witnesses — including Motl himself — from testifying during the trial.

As for the larger fine, the Supreme Court noted that the jury determined that Wittich accepted and failed to report $19,599 in corporate contributions. At a later hearing, the judge declined Motl’s recommendation that Wittich be removed from office, deciding instead to consider “the appropriate financial penalty.”

The judge also noted that state law allows a maximum penalty of three times the amount of the illegal contribution.

Wittich had argued that under the same law, the defendant’s culpability had to be established “by clear and convincing evidence.” The High Court, however, said that the law’s “plain language makes clear that a district court’s decision to treble damages is discretionary, without a requirement of specific intentional conduct.”

Wittich was represented in his appeal by Michael Rabb, of the Rabb Law Firm in Bozeman. The current commissioner of political practices, Jeff Mangan, listed as the appellee in this case, was represented by Gene Jarussi, Bishop & Heenan in Billings, and Jaime MacNaughton, a lawyer from Helena.