Prairie Lights: Did someone say ‘political hack’?

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

Having lost in District Court and now at the Montana Supreme Court, former state Sen. Art Wittich has appealed again to the court of public opinion, airing the same old grievances and portraying his lawless self as the victim of a dastardly conspiracy.

Before the start of his trial on charges of breaking campaign finance laws, Wittich said then-Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who filed the charges, had no case.

“None of the documents supports his theory,” he said. “It’s all opinion and it’s because of my conservative voting record.” At the same time, he referred to Motl’s suit against him as “this bizarre political persecution.”

Then, before his trial got underway, Wittich called the case against him a “lynching” and said Motl was trying to destroy his political future. Last April, a District Court jury contradicted all his claims by finding him guilty, prompting Wittich to appeal his conviction to the Montana Supreme Court.

Last week, after that court rejected Wittich’s appeal, he lashed out at Motl again, calling him “a liberal hack.” Wittich has been saying for years that Motl, as an appointee of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, was the attack dog of the liberal establishment, charged with bringing down conservative Republicans.

On the national level, we have seen how misstatements and outright lies, repeated often enough, come to be seen as the truth. Before that happens here, let’s review the history of Wittich’s “persecution.”

The most important thing to remember is that all this began not with Motl or some other left-wing inquisitor. It began with a Republican candidate in Billings, Debra Bonogofsky, who ran for the Legislature in House District 57 in 2010.

Other Republicans apparently decided her conservative credentials weren’t sound enough, so they recruited Daniel Kennedy, of Laurel, to run against her. Bonogofsky, out knocking on doors one day, ran into Kennedy, who told her, according to one account, that “it wasn’t going to matter that she’d covered the entire district by foot.”

She didn’t know what he meant at the time, but it became clearer toward the end of the primary campaign, when conservative political action groups attacked Bonogofsky in fliers, radio advertising and mailers, accusing her of being anti-gun rights, anti-business and pro-abortion. She lost to Kennedy by 249 votes.

She suspected that Kennedy, in violation of state law, had colluded with and accepted contributions from various corporations, and had failed to report those contributions. She took her complaint to Motl, who investigated and found sufficient cause to file charges against Kennedy.

After further investigation — and the discovery of a huge collection of documents — it became obvious that the National Right to Work Committee had come to Montana in a big way, with the express goal of changing the makeup of the state Legislature.

National Right to Work Committee staff members were sent to Montana to work on the 2010 primary campaign, helping Kennedy and other candidates defeat so-called moderate Republicans in the primary election.

Among the candidates who received such help was Wittich. During Wittich’s trial in District Court in Helena, two young staff members employed by Right to Work —Sarah Arnold and Andrew O’Neill — testified how they moved to Livingston in 2010 to work for a political organization run by Christian LeFer, then the Montana field operative for the National Right to Work Committee.

In some of the most riveting testimony, Arnold, a self-described conservative political operative from Colorado, said that she believed in the principles LeFer’s operation claimed to stand for, but that she also believed the tactics used by LeFer’s organization were unethical.

Arnold said she expected to face political retribution back in Colorado, but testifying in the Wittich trial was “the right thing to do.”

Fourteen to 16 Republican candidates availed themselves of the Right to Work committee’s services, Arnold said, which included campaign websites, valuable databases containing voter information, letter-writing and printing services, opposition research, consulting and voter and candidate surveys, valued at many thousands of dollars.

Most of the candidates signed up for “the works,” meaning the complete package of services. If that phrase sounds like something borrowed from the lexicon of a brothel madam, it’s probably no coincidence.

The political candidates involved in this mess prostituted themselves to an out-of-state corporation, basically pledging their loyalty to an anti-union group in exchange for illegal contributions and expertise in the kind of take-no-prisoners campaigning that has made election season such an ordeal for reasonable people.

Most of the other candidates caught up in the scandal have settled their cases or had default judgments filed against them. Kennedy, the candidate who ran against Bonogofsky, admitted his guilt last year and agreed to pay a fine of $19,599.

Who knows what Wittich will do now that the Montana Supreme Court has denied his appeal? Of all the pathetic things he has said to justify or excuse his actions, none was more pathetic than his assertion that Motl’s lawsuits had the effect of discouraging good and honest citizens from running for public office.

I would argue that what discourages people from running for office is the thoroughly nasty tone of modern campaigns, especially those funded by dark-money outfits with deep pockets and a deep bench of operatives who know how to draw blood.

It’s bad enough to be personally attacked by people in a different political party. How much worse to be buried under an avalanche of lurid, lying mailers sent out by people in your own party?

Wittich continued his jihad against members of his own party once he was in the Legislature. As Missoula Independent columnist Dan Brooks memorably pointed out, Wittich’s dogmatism, his refusal to cooperate with moderate members of his own party, helped forge compromises in the 2015 Legislature, when enough Republicans joined minority Democrats to pass important legislation.

Among the legislative victories that session, appropriately enough, was passage of a “dark money” bill requiring nonprofit organizations that spend money to influence elections to disclose the identities of their donors.

“It turns out that all our representatives needed was a common enemy,” Brooks wrote. “Wittich has been gleefully crossing Republicans off his friends list for so long that he seems to have forgotten where they go once they leave his good graces. It turns out that there is another party in Montana, and they care less about ideological purity than about getting things done.”

So, yes, we do have Wittich to thank for that. And I suppose we could thank him for fighting in court as long as he has. Rather than paying a relatively modest fine, he is now up to more than $80,00o with fines, interest and other costs, all of which, when he finally pays it, will go into the state’s General Fund.

It’s not much, but it will do.