Art Wittich: Person?

Former MT legislator Art Wittich peruses the latest issue of Glower magazine.

It’s been a while since Art Wittich has made stories in Montana politics, meaning that it’s been a while by his standards. Aside from his tractionless campaign to fire the dean of the UM journalism school, Wittich has been quiet since August, when the state supreme court upheld a jury’s finding that he had, in fact, violated campaign finance laws during the 2010 primaries. That accusation has been one of the longest-running stories in Montana politics. It intersected with several other Wittich narratives—his tenure as head of the Health and Human Services Committee, during which he invited state employees to present personal anecdotes of welfare fraud; leaked emails detailing his plans to “purge” the state GOP of perceived moderates; the time he filed for election in the wrong district in a way that allowed him to re-file, after the deadline, in a district where he could run unopposed—and, after Commissioner of Political Practices Jonthan Motl filed charges in 2014, tied them all together. The Wittich investigation was a symbol. His malfeasance happened at a time when Montana’s campaign finance laws were under siege from Citizens United and a legion of dark money groups, including National Right to Work, the anti-union organization from whom he was eventually found to have accepted illegal contributions.

The state fined him a little more than $68,000 for that one. As appeals wore on and he refused to admit wrongdoing—he has insisted, from the beginning, that the charges were political—Motl pushed for him to be removed from office, but the 2016 election obviated that. Wittich lost his bid in the primary, and like that, his political career was over. He went from senate majority leader to private-practice lawyer in less than five years. Now, the Montana Office of Disciplinary Counsel wants to have him disbarred. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter has filed a complaint arguing that Wittich’s violations in 2010 constitute professional misconduct, and he shouldn’t be allowed to practice law.

The legal argument for that is beyond my ken. It centers on the statute of limitations and questions of what remedies Montana’s campaign finance laws allow. But I think there is an ethical question at work here, too. Wittich no longer threatens Montana politics. His faction of the internecine war within the GOP was thoroughly routed, and he shows no sign of returning to the legislature anytime soon. For whose benefit would we punish him? Disbarring him might protect the unsuspecting legal clients of Bozeman, but it seems more like a plan to humiliate a public figure who has already been thoroughly vanquished. That’s not our best selves. If we want to feel smug, we might consider how he feels about his precipitous fall from grace. You can read all about it in this week’s column in the Missoula Independent.

Montana Democrats trampled trying to recover reins of power, figuratively, again

Montana Governor Steve Bullock thinks that’s the last we’ll hear from Billy Madison.

Let’s say you’re getting bullied at school. I can’t imagine it, myself, but for the sake of argument, assume you are a nerd. This big kid is always beating you up. Every day he humiliates you. You’re not strong enough to fight back, but you have to do something. So you invite him to meet by the dumpsters in the dead-end alley behind the school, where you appeal to your shared interests and offer a truce.

What do you think happens next, nerd? That’s right: you live in a dumpster because you’re a pussy. Montana’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, ran this experiment last week, when he convened a special session of the state legislature. Do Republicans still hold strong majorities in both houses? Yes they do. Did the $227 million budget shortfall that occasioned this session bring them to Helena with a giant bargaining chip? Indeed. Yet Democrats seemed surprised when their Republican colleagues threw them into the dumpster.

Take, for example, Sen. Albert Olszewki’s (R-Kalispell) budget-neutral bill to make it harder to change the gender on your birth certificate. SB-10 sought to block a proposed rule change at Health and Human Services that would allow the department to accept sworn affidavits of gender transition, as opposed to court orders only. Normally such changes would be the sole purview of the executive branch, headed by aforementioned Democratic governor Steve Bullock, but he reconvened the legislature. The birth certificate bill didn’t have anything to do with the budget shortfall, but the Republican-dominated state senate passed it anyway. Fortunately, the house ended the session without taking it up. But transgender Montanans almost watched the state snatch away an achievement they had pursued for a long time.

What did Bullock think was going to happen? At a certain point, you have to stop criticizing Republicans for their opportunism and start criticizing Democrats for giving them so many opportunities. We think of the question of who is doing politics better as horse-race stuff, but this story reminds us that it has a moral dimension, too. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

 

Senate candidate blames “deep state” for hunting permit violations

Troy Downing and a fish

Troy Downing is running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democrat Jon Tester for one of Montana’s seats in the US Senate. He is also responding to accusations that he illegally applied for resident hunting and fishing permits every year between 2011 and 2016—spiritedly. Last week, his campaign issued a statement saying that “It’s unfortunate the liberal Montana FWP deep state is on a witch hunt,” referring to the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as an instrument of secret anti-conservative government. That was a stretch. Normally, a candidate would just cop to this kind of violation and kill the story. Downing can’t do that, though, because the essence of FWP’s allegations is that he doesn’t really live here.

I would describe the evidence against him as comically substantial. According to FWP, Downing and his son Dylan used the same Montana driver’s license number to purchase resident hunting licenses within three minutes of each other. He filed Montana income taxes as a nonresident in 2013 and 2014. His property at the Yellowstone Club lists a San Diego post office box as its owner’s address. A 2013 profile in the Lone Peak Lookout describes him as a “part-time Yellowstone resident” who enjoys throwing grape-stomping parties at his vineyard in California. On his blog, he has written about returning from his vacation property in Montana to his home in California. And he is the CEO of a real-estate investment company based in San Diego.

Nevertheless, Downing insists the charges against him are political. So far, though, his campaign has avoided saying he was a resident of Montana all those years. They’ve pulled out all the stops otherwise, repeatedly citing his veteran status and calling the judge in his case a Democrat who released records to sabotage his campaign. Actually, the Gallatin County attorney ordered those records released. You may remember him as the Republican who refused to release Greg Gianforte’s mug shot until a court ordered him to do so.

The point is Troy Downing was framed. He’s a true resident of this state no matter where he quote-unquote “lives.” When you think about it, what’s more Montanan than using the money you made in California to buy a bunch of property here and run for public office? You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I look past the surface conspiracy of the Big Wildlife deep state to uncover something even deeper, darker, and dumber. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, perhaps!

Vote for me to control the weather and end government overreach

It’s snowing in Missoula as I write this—just one more example of Mayor John Engen’s failure to guide this city toward a better future for all of us. It literally never did this before the mayor was elected. In addition to snow, we’ve had to contend with property taxes, out-of-control housing prices, and too-thoroughly-controlled everything else. I, for one, am sick of the mayor’s tax-and-spend progressive agenda. The time is right for new leadership, which is why I’ve announced my own candidacy for mayor, city council, US Senate—whatever I can do to help, really, so long as it puts me in a position of leadership with salary and benefits. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I describe my platform of controlling the weather, halting immigration from other states, and ending government overreach. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

State insurance commissioner on state insurance exchange: It sucks!

Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner Matt Rosendale

Sorry to use this unflattering photo of Matt Rosendale, apparently taken at the moment a bat flew into the room, but I ran into legal problems. I wanted to use this one, but I couldn’t get the rights from Dick Tracey. Anyway, we all know from civics class that the Montana State Auditor and Insurance Commissioner is in charge of the state’s insurance exchange. And we all know from Rosendale that Montana’s exchange sucks. The premiums are too high! My own personal insurer, Montana Health Co-Op, raised the rates on its silver plan 24% going into 2018, on account of Trump took away federal CSR payments. That’s bullshit, though, because when they submitted rates back in June, they specifically told Rosendale they’d be fine with or without CSRs. I quote the commissioner:

My department was advised by both companies just months ago, that with or without [cost-sharing reduction] payments, they would be able to honor the rates they provided to us and the public. Today, by their actions, they inform me that was not true.

What a screwjob! If only we had some sort of state official whose job it was to regulate the behavior of insurance companies. The commissioner insists he has no legal authority to hold them to their previously submitted rates, even though A) there was a deadline, and B) they specifically agreed not to do this. It’s no secret that Rosendale, a Republican, opposes the Affordable Care Act that created the exchange in the first place. It’s almost as though letting insurers raise rates and then publicly complaining about it serves three of his interests: his interest in friendly relations with the companies he regulates, his interest in watching Obamacare blow up, and his interest in harnessing the outrage of the ordinary voter.

But does it serve his interest in getting elected to the US Senate? Rosendale is currently the only Republican candidate for Jon Tester’s seat who holds statewide office. The exchange is his identity. Will voters respond to his bold message of “just look at this failed system I’m running?” You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, maybe. I’m doing so much work, you guys.