Last week I was feeling dispirited about the propaganda flowing into Montana by way of TV ads attacking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This week, I feel an acorn of hope.
No, I still don’t know who has been buying those ads, other than the nonhuman face of Protect America’s Consumers. And the ads are still running in abundance, hour after hour, on cable news channels in a few targeted states, including Montana.
But a showing of raw footage from the Art Wittich trial at the Art House Cinema on Monday should give us all hope that although battles against dark money may have been lost, the war isn’t over. (The event also was a nice fundraiser for Last Best News, so thanks to all involved for that.)
The footage was taken for a documentary film by Kimberly Reed, a Helena native who now lives in New York City. She is best known for “Prodigal Sons,” a 2008 documentary about her return to Montana for her 20-year high school reunion. When she left Montana, she had been a boy and even quarterback on the football team.
“When you change your sex,” she said in her director’s statement, “you get tremendous pressure to bury your past, to let it disappear like the ‘M’ that used to be on your drivers license.”
“Prodigal Sons” won a raft of rave reviews and awards. The Washington Post called it a “brave, unflinching film.” The Denver Post called it a “hidden gem.” The San Francisco Chronicle said it was “harrowing and unforgettable.”
The website for her new film, “Dark Money,” says this: “A century ago corrupt money scarred Montana’s democracy and landscape, but Montanans voted to prohibit corporate campaign contributions.
“Today, after the Citizens United ruling, 501c4 dark money floods elections nationwide, but Montanans are standing up to stop history from repeating itself in a struggle that has the potential to change the way elections happen nationwide.”
That sounds a bit dramatic, but Gene Jarussi, the Billings lawyer who was the star of Monday evening’s film, said afterward that one thing already has changed for the better. Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl told him that candidates this year are doing a better job than ever of making sure they get accurate and timely campaign reports turned in.
Monday’s showing was before a small but appreciative crowd consisting largely of lawyers. The footage included Jarussi’s cross-examination of Wittich and then his final summation for the jury. The showing was preceded and followed by comments from Jarussi.
Full disclosure: Jarussi was a longtime friend and supporter of my old paper, the Billings Outpost, and we profited greatly from his wise counsel. But even if I thought he was a no-good son of a bitch, it would be hard to find fault with the way he handled this case.
I won’t rehash the case in this space, but you can find John Adams’ first-rate coverage by going here and then following the links. Short summary: Wittich, a Bozeman legislator, was the first Montana politician in 75 years to have been found by a jury to have violated campaign laws.
He was fined $84,000, including court costs, after a jury found on April 1 that he had failed to maintain and preserve campaign finance records from his 2010 primary race. He also was found to have illegally accepted $19,599 in corporate campaign donations and to have failed to report all contributions, including coordinated in-kind help.
Wittich tried to portray the case as a political “lynching” by a political practices commissioner who was out to get him for partisan purposes. Jarussi came out of retirement to serve as a special attorney general in the case, and he and special attorney general John Heenan, another Billings lawyer, took the case for no compensation other than expenses.
Together, they pored over thousands of documents to build a case that included about 85 exhibits. Testimony from former staffers for the National Right to Work Committee helped establish that even people sympathetic to Republican ideology thought coordination between Wittich and outside groups went too far.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Jarussi said Monday. “And sometimes you may be missing a few pieces, but you know what the picture is.”
It finally became clear, Jarussi argued in his summation, that Wittich, described by his own lawyers as a “bit of a control freak,” knew, or ought to have inquired, about the wave of mailings that went out on his behalf.
On the witness stand, Wittich seemed genuinely at a loss to understand why his actions were being questioned. He tried to portray himself as an innocent victim and argued that the case against him would discourage other citizens from running for office. Jarussi called this the “ostrich defense,” pointing out that Wittich, himself a lawyer, should have known better than anyone his obligation to keep accurate and complete records.
“It strains credibility to think he didn’t know what was going on,” Jarussi said to the jury.
The real disincentive for potential candidates, he argued, is being subjected to tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of negative attacks by outside forces that can’t be held accountable for their actions.
Are we brave enough to hold politicians accountable? Jarussi asked.
“You’re the conscience of Lewis and Clark County,” he told jurors, “and, quite frankly, you’re the conscience of Montana.”
After Monday’s showing, Jarussi said, “Neither party has the corner on choirboys.” But he said that Democrats lack the coordinated dark money efforts that can shift the odds even in Republican vs. Republican primary races. The corporate entities that assisted Wittich’s campaign would never have worked with a Democrat, he said.
Jarussi said he normally doesn’t seek publicity for cases he is involved in, but he wants word about this case to get out. He has written an opinion piece that has been appearing in Montana newspapers, including in Tuesday’s Billings Gazette. On Monday, he summarized the piece this way: “Say what you want, we proved the case.”
Wittich remained unrepentant after the trial, and his supporters continue to argue that he was railroaded. But for the rest of us, the case provided a glimmer of hope that maybe we are not plunging headlong into a world where elections are all decided by whoever has the largest checkbook—and nobody knows who is writing the checks.
As Jarussi put it, “Once in a while, like a little squirrel, you find an acorn.”
CLARIFICATION: Kimberly Reed’s new film, “Dark Money,” which is still in production, is in no way connected to Last Best News or to a fundraiser held Monday at Art House Cinema.