HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Friday rejected a Bozeman legislator's appeal seeking to throw out accusations that he took illegal corporate campaign contributions, clearing the way for a civil trial later this month.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl accuses Republican Rep. Art Wittich of taking in-kind contributions from corporate groups affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee during his 2010 campaign and not reporting them. He has filed a lawsuit that asks a state judge to uphold his findings and enforce penalties against Wittich that could include the legislator's removal from office.
Wittich denies the accusations. He appealed to the high court after a district judge disagreed with his argument that Motl did not have the authority to investigate him or bring the case to court because nobody had filed a complaint with the commissioner's office alleging specific wrongdoing by him.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that Wittich's appeal was premature, and that he will be able to raise his complaints during trial or on appeal afterward, if he loses.
"Wittich's claims concerning the process followed by (Motl) do not divest the District Court of its broad jurisdiction to adjudicate this case," the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath said.
Justices Laurie McKinnon and Jim Rice dissented, saying Wittich had raised a legitimate issue over whether Motl could bring a civil action when no complaint was filed against Wittich. McKinnon, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said she would put the March 28 trial on hold so the Supreme Court could address the issue.
The allegations against Wittich stem from a complaint filed by Debra Bonogofsky against her 2010 Republican primary opponent, Dan Kennedy. The complaint accused Kennedy and others of taking corporate contributions.
District Judge Ray Dayton ruled that Motl has an obligation to fully investigate any other violations that arise from a written complaint. Although Wittich was not named in the original complaint, it did mention others were receiving improper report, Dayton wrote.
Once Motl knew that Wittich was one of the "others" mentioned in the complaint, he proceeded properly, Dayton ruled.
Motl declined to comment on the ruling. Wittich did not return a call for comment, but his attorney said they would be ready for trial.
"Mr. Wittich looks forward to a jury trial with his fellow Montanans and has every expectation of an affirmative outcome," he said.
After the Supreme Court's ruling, Dayton told the court clerk to summon a jury pool.
Dayton ruled Friday in Motl's favor on a three relatively minor issues that will narrow the focus of the trial: That Wittich failed to use his campaign account to make 12 purchases, failed to include a debt on his campaign finance report and failed to report receiving contributions above $35 at rallies in Three Forks and Bozeman.
The judge also wants to keep politics from overshadowing the trial. He ruled against the appearance of a Wittich witness who would have testified about liberals attempting to defeat Wittich's conservative causes and against Wittich being able to argue he is the victim of selective prosecution.
"This case is about the evidence regarding Wittich's alleged involvement in campaign violations," Dayton wrote. "It is not about Motl's alleged dislike for Wittich because of differing political views."