Jury: Montana lawmaker coordinated with dark-money groups

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A jury found Friday that a Montana lawmaker coordinated with and received services from conservative corporate groups in violation of state campaign laws, a ruling that could lead to his removal from office.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, took $19,500 worth in-kind contributions that he didn’t disclose from organizations affiliated with the National Right to Work Committee during his 2010 re-election campaign, the jury found. The contributions included campaign consulting, direct mail and voter and fundraising data.

Candidates cannot receive contributions from corporations and must fully report donations and spending under Montana law.

Wittich had strongly denied any illegal coordination and accused Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl of going after him because he is a conservative.

The jury’s verdict in the civil trial is a win for Motl, whose investigation led to the theory that Wittich was among 14 Republican candidates who got off-the-books help from Right to Work and affiliates in exchange for loyalty to their causes.

That is corruption, Motl has said. The jury did not hear any evidence on the loyalty-for-campaign-aid allegations, but only decided whether the anti-union groups provided services to Wittich, what the services’ value was and whether he coordinated with the groups.

District Judge Ray Dayton could decide whether there was corruption in the next phase of the proceedings against Wittich.

Dayton will decide any penalties against Wittich, from fines up to removal from office. A date was not immediately set.

Motl is seeking a ruling from Dayton that Wittich’s actions amounted to quid pro quo corruption, such as bribery. Motl needs to show evidence of such corruption to defend Montana’s campaign contribution limits in a separate federal lawsuit.

Plaintiffs in that lawsuit seek to strike down Montana’s contribution caps, which are among the lowest in the nation, as unconstitutional.

Wittich’s case is the first in the Right to Work investigation to go to trial, and it will likely set a precedent for other open cases against candidates and the nonprofit corporations, which are registered as social welfare organizations.

State judges ruled against two other Republican candidates last year when they did not show up to defend themselves. Two others have settled out of court.

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