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.
The whole state of Montana until Tuesday
You can’t hear it, but someone is lazily picking a banjo. The buffalo no longer roam, having decided one place is as good as another. The deer and the antelope play video games. Montana politics is sleepy, so sleepy. But then look what happens: a federal judge rules unconstitutional several elements of our campaign finance law. Suddenly, the dog sits up. As of Tuesday afternoon—three weeks before the primaries—political parties can contribute unlimited amounts to individual candidates. Judge Charles Lovell’s ruling seems to indicate that limits on donations from individuals and corporations are lifted as well, but Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl believes he must only revert to the limits in place before the ones Lovell struck down, in 1994.
Anyway, the last time this law was briefly overturned—for nine days in 2012—Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill accepted a $500,000 donation. Our easy slumber may have just been broken. I, for one, welcome the impending rush of cash into Montana politics. The 2016 campaign needs a shot of adrenaline. Why, just this week in the Missoula Independent, I wrote about how Bullock versus Gianforte has been a clash of tepid negatives. But the potential for political action committees of all kinds to
spend unlimited amounts of money say unlimited amounts of speech ensures a vigorous exchange of ideas. So pander to me, boys. I’m all napped up.
Televised advisor Dr. Phil, whose net worth is about half Greg Gianforte’s
Last week, Montana entrepreneur and admitted gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte challenged Governor Bullock to refuse donations from political action committees. Gianforte personally delivered the pledge to his office in Helena, although the governor was in Billings at the time. But no matter! The gauntlet was thrown down, by a man still holding approximately 300 million gauntlets.
After that public gesture, Gianforte told reporters he would take their questions not at all. Even the Independent, which previously ran a friendly interview from the state’s handsomest columnist, got shut out. Gianforte started the day with a stunt carried on every media outlet in the state and finished by telling us there was money on the dresser, so to speak. But we didn’t get any money. It was an insult our honor could not bear, and we repaid him by calling him a secret theocrat before he actually did it.
I understand why Gianforte mistrusts the press. Back when he told the Montana Bible College that Noah didn’t retire and that’s why he doesn’t believe in Social Security, we pilloried him for treating Genesis as policy. He explicitly told me he didn’t want to discuss religion in November. In January, Darrell Ehrlick of the Billings Gazette published this editorial complaining that Gianforte wasn’t talking about his faith.
I wish I could believe that his reservations on the topic were borne out [of] some modesty or humility. Instead, Gianforte may be reluctant to talk about his beliefs because then we might discover what he really believes—about gay people, evolution or any number of hot-button issues.
His reservation seem borne of the time we all made fun of him for three weeks, bro. Also, we know he believes a bunch of crazy stuff about gay people and evolution because there’s an (R) next to his name. These and other insights will reveal themselves to you if you read my column in this week’s Missoula Independent. If you don’t, who knows what will happen? Everyone but you, I reckon. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!
Art Wittich has no plans to give you a dollar.
Despite a guest editorial protesting
his innocence his accusers’ politics, Art Wittich is still the subject of a campaign finance lawsuit. Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl alleges Wittich failed to report significant in-kind contributions from dark money groups during the 2010 election. “My political opponents are pleased that I have been forced to spend time and money defending myself against the thought police in a bogus lawsuit,” Wittich wrote, responding to Motl’s claim that the representative from Belgrade took “the works”—a package of staffing, lease management, direct mailing, and campaign strategy—from the anti-union group Right to Work. This story began when federal agents found a box of documents in a Colorado meth house linking various Montana Republicans to the fined-and-now-defunct Western Traditions Partnership, and it’s gotten weirder ever since. It’s going to be awesome when Rep. Wittich is exonerated of any wrongdoing and we find out he really is the victim of a conspiracy. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.
In other news, I’m in the New York Times Magazine today (on the web, and in print this weekend) with a Letter of Recommendation: Joke Dollar. Those of you who know me probably know about this genius custom already. Now it belongs to the world, and you can look forward to people handing you dollars every time you observe that a mermaid’s pussy smells like land. That’s the joke Sarah Aswell made in the first paragraph, which the Times understandably did not find suitable for its audience. It suited hell out of me, though, ten years ago when she made it and today. Thanks to all you jokers for giving me something to write about in my doddering middle age. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links.
A Maine lobster and possibly different Dan Backer
Dan Backer is an activist for campaign finance reform who won McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court case that lifted aggregate limits on individual contributions to political campaigns. “Money in politics is great,” he told Marin Cogan of New York Magazine. “Restraints on political communication are fundamentally about protecting the status quo, and also about preventing people from having every bit of information they want to consume.”
Backer also has Tourette’s Syndrome. Showing remarkable restraint, Cogan puts this information in paragraph ten:
[Backer has] also helped organize the Stop Pelosi PAC and Stop R.E.I.D. PAC, and helps run the Conservative Action Fund, a tea-party group funded by Shaun McCutcheon. He is rarely the public face of these groups; Backer has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes facial tics and other TV-unfriendly gestures, like the tendency to gesture at you with both middle fingers as he’s speaking.
That’s a rich image. We often think of the claim that money can be speech as inherently disingenuous: you’d only believe that if someone paid you. The image of Backer delivering the Stockton heybuddy along with his argument must have been enormously tempting as a lead. Kudos to Cogan for not doing that, and for presenting Backer as someone who genuinely believes in his cause. I sure do disagree with him, though.