Former Montana legislator Wesley Prouse is out of jail after agreeing to release financial documents related to penalties from a political corruption lawsuit.
Prouse has a week to produce financial documents showing whether he has the wherewithal to pay a $59,066 penalty owed to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. The Shepherd man was jailed for civil contempt Tuesday after refusing to produce the records, which he had originally been ordered to deliver in May.
Prouse was implicated in a 2010 campaign scandal in which Republicans aligned with the National Right to Work Committee received thousands of dollars of unreported political support. Eight corporations affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee offered Prouse and others a host of campaign services including campaign management, voter data, opponent attack mail and promotional material including letters to voters.
The voter letters were written by employees in Right to Work's Virginia headquarters based on profiles submitted by the candidates, according to former employees testifying in the trial of fellow Republican candidate Art Wittich, of Bozeman.
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A legislator in the 1990s, Prouse had been representing himself until late in week when Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades took up his case.
“Mr. Prouse intends to comply with the court order. He has been without council and so he probably didn’t understand the extent of the circumstances he faces legally,” Rhoades said. “I’ll be able to guide him through that process.”
The corporations involved were classified as tax-exempt nonprofit groups that can campaign on issues, but are legally forbidden from campaigning for candidates, or coordinating with candidate campaigns. The key nonprofit involved in the scheme was Western Tradition Partnership.
Former Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl sued nine of the Republicans implicated in the scandal, including Prouse. Several of the candidates were elected to the Montana Legislature, but Prouse wasn’t. He finished third in a 2010 four-candidate primary race won by Alan Olson.
Prouse reported receiving only $261 in campaign donations for the primary, according to Motl’s investigation. The candidate also reported spending no money during his campaign, but received roughly $9,000 in campaign services.
A couple of the GOP candidates reached settlements with Motl and lawsuits are ongoing for three others, including Wittich, who has appealed his case to the state Supreme Court after losing at the District Court level.
Rhoades represented Wittich in District Court. Republicans have balked at the lawsuits brought by Motl, arguing that during Motl’s tenure no Democrats were sued for campaign violations. Rhoades said Prouse was suspicious about the lawsuit against the Shepherd lawmaker, considering it partisan.
“Mr. Prouse is justifiably suspicious of the system because there was a small handful of about 20 candidates and consultants who were sued by Mr. Motl. And there were a small handful of people who were affiliated with Right to Work,” Rhoades said. “They also voted against confirming Mr. Motl” in the Legislature.
“They were the only people in the history of Montana who were sued by the Commissioner of Political Practices and so Mr. Prouse is suspicious.”
Prouse served in the 1998 Legislature and was not in office when Motl became commissioner. Others in the lawsuit were Republicans Scott Sales and Ronald Murray, of Belgrade; Wittich, of Bozeman; Dan Kennedy of Billings; Joel Boniek and Pat Wagman, of Livingston; and Mike Miller, of Helmville.
Many of those candidates, when settling lawsuits brought by Motl, agreed that they broke state campaign law.