Jailed ex-legislator called dark-money prosecution ‘political game’
The former state legislator who was jailed on Tuesday for contempt of court reportedly refused to cooperate with authorities regarding his involvement in a political corruption scandal, calling the court case against him “a political game.”
Wesley Prouse, of Shepherd, who will turn 49 on Thursday, was in jail and could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but the Billings lawyer who prosecuted several Republican legislative candidates involved in the so-called dark-money cases gave an account of the events that landed Prouse in jail.
Gene Jarussi, who served with John Heenan as special attorneys general on behalf of then-Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, said Prouse never responded or appeared in court after being charged in District Court in Helena in 2014 with illegally accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of unreported campaign contributions from the National Right to Work Committee and several of its affiliates during his run for the Republication nomination in a state Senate race in 2010.
After a default judgment was filed against Prouse in 2015, Jarussi said, Prouse failed to attend a damages hearing, at which the judge assessed a $59,066 fine against him.
“He never appealed, never objected to it,” Jarussi said. “The judgment became final after 30 days.”
A transcript of the judgment was filed in Yellowstone County District Court, enabling Jarussi to seek payment of the fine, but it was not until early this year that Jarussi attempted to do so. By that time, with interest, Prouse’s fine totaled $61,567.20. Jarussi said he obtained a writ of execution, using which he removed $2,267.23 from Prouse’s bank account.
When he filed a second writ, Jarussi said, the bank informed him that the account had been closed. Jarussi then asked Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses for a “debtor’s exam,” in which the court has the debtor come in and list all his debts and assets, under oath.
“He was directed by the court to produce 12 different categories of documents,” Jarussi said, and while Prouse did attend that examination on May 12, he turned over no documents. Under questioning by the judge and Jarussi, Prouse admitted he had tax returns, loan statements, deeds, financial statements, and other similar documents.
“He’s got them,” Jarussi paraphrased Prouse as saying, “he just will not produce them. He said it considered this a political game.”
Moses found Prouse in contempt of court at that hearing, but still gave him until June 6 to either produce the documents or pay the fine, upon which the contempt citation would be purged from his record. When Prouse took no action by June 6, Jarussi said he decided “we’d have to take West at his word, that he has the documents but will not produce them. To me, that precluded any kind of middle ground.”
On June 8, Jarussi filed a motion for incarceration, seeking to have Prouse jailed until he paid the fine or produced the documents in question. In that motion, Jarussi said Prouse “simply has chosen to thumb his nose at the Court.”
Prouse attended a hearing on that motion before Moses on Tuesday, but again refused to produce the documents or pay the fine. Jarussi said Prouse told the judge he understood that Moses was just doing what he had to do, “but he was not going to be part of this game.”
Jarussi said Prouse also turned to him at the hearing and said, “God is going to judge you some day.”
Moses then ordered Prouse jailed and with that the hearing was over.
“I left and Wes went to jail,” Jarussi said.
In a case like this, Jarussi said, all fine money goes directly into the state’s General Fund. “In a real sense,” he said, “this money is owed to the people of Montana.”
Prouse, who served in the state House in 1997-98, was one of four candidates who vied for the Republican nomination in the Senate District 23 race in 2010. He came in third in the primary, and the winner, Alan Olson, also won the General Election.
Motl, the political practices commissioner at the time, filed lawsuits against nine candidates accused of taking illegal contributions from the National Right to Work Committee or its affiliates in the 2010 election. Under Montana law, candidates cannot accept contributions from corporations, and they must report all in-kind contributions they receive.
Motl’s investigation concluded that all nine candidates received a campaign package called “the works” in exchange for signing a pledge to back the right-to-work committee’s principles. “The works” included training, campaign consulting, voter information, website help, fliers attacking the candidates’ opponents, yard-sign design and more.
The only one of the nine cases to go to trial involved then-state Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. He was found guilty of taking illegal corporate contributions by a District Court jury in April 2016, and that November he appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court, where it is still pending.
Jarussi said part of the reason he didn’t go after Prouse over nonpayment of his fine sooner was that he was too busy with the Wittich case, which he and Heenan prosecuted. Wittich, like Prouse, said he was the victimof a partisan attempt to deprive conservative politicians of their constitutional rights.
Jarrussi said another Republican politician, Joel Boniek, of Livingston, also had a default judgment filed against him, but he has not yet paid a fine.
Resolving the Boniek case is “on the list of things to do,” Jarussi said.