HELENA – The state political practices commissioner concluded that Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich violated the law by coordinating with Western Tradition Partnership and other entities to accept illegal corporate donations in his 2010 primary election campaign.
Later Tuesday, Commissioner Jonathan Motl filed a civil complaint against Wittich, a Republican legislator from Bozeman, in District Court in Helena.
Motl asked District Judge Mike Menahan to uphold his findings and consider removing Wittich from the 2014 ballot and fine him three times the amount of the violations determined by the court. Wittich is running for the Montana House this year.
There’s no precedent for removing a candidate from the ballot since the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices was created in 1975.
“But there’s no precedent in any commissioners’ decisions in the history of this office for this extensive corporate involvement in campaigns,” Motl said in an interview. “There is not a precedent for a candidate not to produce (campaign accounting) records either.”
In response, Wittich said he broke no law and would fight Motl’s decision in court. All of his 2010 campaign activities were “consistent with the practice and the customs and the rules of the time,” the legislator said.
“Motl disregarded long-standing precedent and redefined coordination with a third-party group,” Wittich said. “I think it’s politically motivated. I think he wants to gag candidates before the primary and general election.”
Motl issued the 37-page decision as part of his continuing investigation of the involvement of Western Tradition Partnership, now known as American Tradition Partnership, in Republican legislative races in 2010 and 2012.
He has concluded in cases against six other Republican legislative candidates that they appeared to have broken state campaign laws when they coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership on campaign mailers that promoted themselves or attacked their opponents in 2010.
WTP formed in 2008 as an “anti-environmentalist” group and since has paid for thousands of campaign mailers attacking and promoting legislative candidates in Montana in 2008, 2010 and 2012. This so-called “dark money” group has never reported any of its campaign-related spending in Montana, or its donors, insisting that it is educating voters on issues, not advocating for or against candidates.
In Wittich’s case, Motl found that Western Tradition Partnership and related groups produced at least 12,554 letters for his campaign at a cost of slightly more $7,000. Motl determined that the 45 to 50 cents that Wittich paid for the letters didn’t cover the cost of the stamps, envelopes, paper and ink.
Motl found that Wittich paid nothing to Western Tradition Partnership for its services in writing, editing, laying out and processing the letters.
He concluded that Wittich had cooperated with and approved of the services in some of the letters. His signature was “print-signed” on the letters, and he partially paid for them, Motl said.
“The undisclosed and unreported intro and closing letter services provided to candidate Wittich were provided by a corporation, whether through the WTP corporation or the Direct Mail corporation,” Motl said. Direct Mail operated a print shop in Livingston.
Wittich didn’t admit to any coordination with WTP. Motl called his response “not credible.”
The commissioner also said that Wittich has failed to disclose and report to the public the names and addresses of 16 contributors to his campaign and failed to maintain campaign records for the four-year period required under state law.
“The many decisions to act or not to act made by candidate Wittich in this matter were choices,” Motl wrote. “Excusable neglect cannot be applied to such choices. ...
“Montana has determined that political discourse is more fairly advanced when election funding is kept fair and, through disclosure, the public is informed as to the identity of those who seek to influence elections. There can be no excuse for instances of failing to attribute, report and disclose, or for acceptance of corporate in-kind contributions, such as are involved in this matter.”
Motl also warned candidates for office in 2014 “to avoid the sort of election entanglement or involvement with a nonprofit or for-profit corporation that candidate Wittich had with WTP and/or Direct Mail.”