Jury to decide whether lawmaker took illegal contr

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Posted: Mar 29, 2016 1:32 AM
Jury to decide whether lawmaker took illegal contr

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana Republican illegally took thousands of dollars' worth of unreported campaign contributions from several nonprofit corporations funded by a national anti-union organization during his 2010 election campaign, the attorney for the state's campaign regulator told a jury Monday.

Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman essentially turned over his campaign to groups operating under the National Right to Work Committee, Special Attorney General Gene Jarussi said in his opening arguments. The groups, led by a Right to Work operative named Christian LeFer, provided Wittich with a direct mail program of ghost-written letters signed by the candidate and his wife, along with opposition research, media and campaign consulting, voter data and website design, Jarussi said.

"It's impossible to conclude that Mr. Wittich didn't know what was going on," Jarussi said.

Candidates cannot receive direct contributions from corporations under Montana law. A jury of six women and six men will decide in the trial expected to last through Friday whether Wittich coordinated with the groups, whether they gave him the alleged services and if so, what the value of the services were.

Wittich denies any wrongdoing. His attorney, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, told jurors that Wittich ran his own campaign and hired a Livingston printer to produce the voter letters and his website. He paid fair-market value for the work and was "surprised and sad" to receive a letter two years ago that Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl was investigating him.

The investigation is "a government overreach horror story," Luetkemeyer said.

There is no recording, email or any other evidence that shows Wittich coordinated with the groups, she said.

Motl's investigation concluded that multiple groups affiliated with or partially funded by the National Right to Work Committee selected candidates to whom they offered a campaign package called "the works" for free or for cost. That included a series of seven voter letters penned by employees at Right to Work's Virginia headquarters, and fliers attacking the candidates' opponents, according to Motl's findings.

The candidates also were offered training, voter data and even yard-sign design, according to employee documents subpoenaed by Motl's office.

Sarah Arnold, one of those employees, testified that she was hired by the National Right to Work Committee for Montana's elections in 2010. She worked under Right to Work operative Christian LeFer and tracked candidates and conducted opposition research.

Candidates selected to receive "the works" package were carefully vetted and required to sign a Right to Work survey showing they backed the group's principles. In exchange, at least 14 candidates, including Wittich, received the comprehensive campaign service program that was also called "Smart Simple Campaigns," she said.

Wittich was "on board," Arnold said, a phrase she repeated often in the first day of the trial to denote candidates who lined up solidly behind Right to Work's anti-unionism.

"We would not have put into the campaign what we did if he was not totally on board," Arnold said.

Motl, who cannot enforce penalties himself, filed lawsuits against nine candidates he said received the services in 2010. He discovered five others who received "the works" package after the four-year statute of limitations ran out, he said.

Wittich's case is the first brought by Motl to go to trial. Wittich has accused Motl of selective prosecution for partisan reasons.

Motl was appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and confirmed last year by the Republican-led Legislature.

The National Right to Work Committee has not responded to repeated requests for comment. A separate lawsuit against Right to Work and its affiliates is pending.

Cases against three of the nine candidates have been resolved without a trial. Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, settled out of court for a fine and agreed not to run for office for four years. Two state judges entered default judgments against state House candidate Joel Boniek and former Senate candidate Wesley Prouse, who did not show up to defend themselves. Both were fined and banned from running for office until they file corrected campaign finance reports.

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This story has been updated to correct the number of male and female jurors after a female juror was excused from duty.