HELENA — A highly anticipated civil trial to determine whether Bozeman Republican Rep. Art Wittich violated campaign practice laws during his 2010 primary campaign got underway in Helena on Monday.
Wittich, the former Republican Senate majority leader and conservative stalwart in the state House, has been accused by, Jonathan Motl, Montana’s top campaign ethics chief, of violating state campaign finance laws.
Wittich is facing allegations that during his 2010 Senate campaign he illegally benefited from corporate campaign contributions and services from organizations tied to the National Right to Work Committee.
After nearly four hours of jury selection the panel was whittled down to seven women and five men with two alternate jurors.
Gene Jarussi, the special attorney general representing the commissioner of political practices, was the first to present his case to the jury. Jarussi said despite the seemingly complex nature of the case, the facts would clearly show that Wittich accepted illegal corporate campaign contributions and failed to report them during his 2010 primary campaign.
“The evidence will show Mr. Wittich received campaign donations worth thousands of dollars which he never reported,” Jarussi told the jury.
Jarussi said Wittich, a Bozeman attorney who routinely works on complex litigation involving state regulations and real estate, knows the importance of reading documents, keeping records and paying attention to details.
Jarussi warned jurors that Wittich’s defense would try to “muddy the waters” and make the case seem more complicated than it is.
“It’s impossible to conclude he didn’t know the score, that he didn’t know what was going on,” Jarussi said.
“It’s not easy to follow this complex web,” Jarussi said. “We suggest when you step back and look at it in the the light of the day, it will be clear there was a violation of Montana’s campaign finance laws, which govern all political campaigns in the state of Montana.”
One of Wittich’s attorneys, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, in her opening remarks to the jury retorted that Wittich is a committed public servant who has been victimized by an overzealous government regulator.
Luetkemeyer told jurors that Wittich was “saddened” to receive a letter from Motl in January 2014 informing him he was under investigation.
“In 2010 [Wittich] volunteered to run for public office and worked hard to win the the general election by 70 percent of the vote,” Luetkemeyer said.
Luetkemeyer described Wittich as a committed family man and public servant who was shocked in 2014 to find out he was being sued by Motl.
“When Art held Mr. Motl’s letter in his hands … it was like the opening scene of a government overreach horror story,” Luetkemeyer told the jury.
Luetkemeyer told jurors they would hear from Wittich himself during the trial, and that Wittich would testify that he never coordinated with any outside groups, paid for all the services that were provided and reported every expenditure.
“He worked hard, tried to play by the rules, and still found himself caught on the government’s cross hairs,” she said.
After opening remarks the court went into recess. When proceedings resumed, Judge Ray Dayton informed the courtroom that one of the jurors had been dismissed citing a conflict that would not allow her to stay through all five scheduled days of the trial. One of the two alternates was promoted in her place, bringing the make-up of the jury to six men and six women.
First to testify, on behalf of the plaintiff, was a former staffer for the National Right to Work Committee who worked in Montana in 2010.
Sarah Arnold, who said she paid by the Right to Work and worked under the direction of Christian LeFer, detailed the inner workings of a sophisticated, multi-layered campaign operation run by LeFer that involved high-end mail and printing house, advanced computer systems, valuable voter databases, walking lists, campaign websites and a letter-writing mill that churned out campaign materials on behalf of candidates supposedly written by candidates’ friends and family members.
With Arnold on the stand, Jarussi walked jurors through documents that showed how the organization screened potential Republican candidates and then rewarded candidates who were “on board” with Right to Work’s “agenda” with campaign services. Arnold testified that vetted candidates who “did things the right way” could see “thousands of pieces of friendly mail” coming into their district.
Arnold told jurors that the Right to Work organization worked directly with “14 to 16” Republican candidates in 2010, including Wittich. Arnold said she believed Wittich knew the specifics of the operation working on his behalf and was one of the “favorites” of LeFer, who ran the campaign.
Arnold will continue her testimony on Tuesday when the trial resumes at 9 a.m.
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