Professional misconduct: Disciplinary counsel files complaint against Wittich

In the midst of his trial on charges of breaking campaign finance laws, Art Wittich, left, confers with his lawyer, Quentin Rhoades. (Kimberly Reed/Last Best News)

(Last Best News) The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint against former state Sen. Art Wittich on Monday, charging him with professional misconduct.

The complaint, filed with the Commission on Practice of the Montana Supreme Court by Chief Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter, stems from Wittich’s trial in 2016, when he was found liable for violations of state campaign finance laws. This past August, the state high court turned down Wittich’s four-part appeal of that decision.

Wittich said Monday afternoon that he had not been served with a copy of the complaint yet, but said “I’ll defend it vigorously. It’s all political hogwash.” He said he was found guilty six years after the fact for failing to report the correct dollar figure on campaign reports.

And then Gene Jarussi and John Heenan, the lawyers who prosecuted him on behalf of the Commissioner of Political Practices, filed a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel asking to have Wittich charged with misconduct.

He said lawyers in other states have filed similar complaints based on rules of professional misconduct, which he described as “a catch-all provision” being used nationally to go after lawyers who are also Republican politicians.

He noted that Heenan is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and that Cotter was appointed by former President Obama to be the U.S. attorney for Montana.

Cotter’s complaint asks the Commission on Practice to issue a citation to Wittich, who would then have 20 days to file a written answer to the complaint. The complaint also asks the COP to convene a formal hearing on the allegations before an adjudicatory panel of the commission.

The complaint further asks the COP to report its findings and recommendations to the Supreme Court, and, if the adjudicatory panel finds that discipline is warranted, to recommend “the nature and extent of appropriate disciplinary action.”

On the website for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, under “rules for lawyer disciplinary enforcement,” possible discipline or sanctions could range from an admonition from the adjudicatory panel to disbarment, which would prohibit Wittich from practicing law in Montana.

The complaint says Wittich, who was admitted to practice law in Montana in 1985, “committed numerous violations of Montana’s campaign disclosure statues and regulations” while running for the state Legislature in 2010.

Before Wittich went to trial on charges filed by the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, the complaint continues, summary judgment was granted in favor of the COPP for the following campaign finance violations:

♦ Failing to use his designated campaign account when buying 12 campaign items totaling $4,903.14, and by issuing three checks totaling $2,602.44 with matching expenses on his campaign finance reports.

♦ Failing to reflect a $500 debt owed to a campaign worker in the proper report.

♦ Taking in contributions over the $35 limit at two rallies, totaling $930, and failing to the report the contributions.

♦ Failing to maintain and preserve records of his campaign contributions and expenditures.

♦ Accepting corporate contributions, including in-kind contributions, totaling $19,599, and failing to report them.

After his trial in April 2016, a jury found Wittich liable for failing to maintain and preserve records of his campaign contributions; accepting corporate contributions and in-contributions; and failing to report all such contributions, totaling $19,599.

On the basis of all that, the complaint says, Wittich “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation in violation of of Rule 8.4(c), MRPC.”

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Commission on Practice are both part of a lawyer regulation system established by the Montana Supreme Court. The ODC, according to its website, investigates and prosecutes complaints against lawyers that are within the jurisdiction of the court.

The COP hears the complaints and, in appropriate cases, makes recommendations to the court for discipline. The Supreme Court appoints the disciplinary counsel. The high court also appoints all members of the COP, which is made up of nine lawyers and five non-lawyers.