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.
“Who is this Gianforte—some kind of slacker?”
Ask a Montanan whether he supports preserving access to public lands, and he’ll jam his eatin’ spoon in your eye until he feels it crunch. He didn’t understand the question, and you startled him. To make some kind of meaning from all those empty words, people need a concrete example. My apartment has fallen into abstraction lately, so it’ll take me as second to hunt up a good—here we go. This thing Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte did works nicely:
In 2009, Greg and Susan Gianforte sued the Montana department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, seeking to get rid of a fishing access point that residents of Bozeman had used for almost 40 years to go fishing on the East Gallatin River…The spur led not only to the river but to an entire riparian area of 75 public acres, protected by FWP for the enjoyment and general use of all citizens. But the easement also ran over the far end of the Gianfortes’s property, and so…they viewed it as a trespass.
Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link. The Gianfortes filed their lawsuit through a limited-liability corporation called East Gallatin LLC, headquartered at their home in Bozeman. They retained as counsel in the matter of East Gallatin LLC v. Father-Son Fishing Trip one Art Wittich, attorney-at-law in the Bozeman area and R–Belgrade in the Montana State House. The crossover is delightful. It’s like Captain America: Civil War except they’re on the same side, against Montana Cowgirl.
Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl (Photo by Alex Sakariassen)
Montana has had 11 commissioners of political practices since 1975, which is odd, because they’re supposed to serve for six years. No commissioner has completed a term since 2004. The position is appointed by the governor of Montana but approved by the senate, and those two seats of power have been occupied by different parties for the last decade. The status of his office as a political football only makes it more impressive that, earlier this month, Motl became the first commissioner of political practices in two decades to clear the complaint docket.
The last time that happened was 1998. The commission has issued 286 decisions since then—144 of them since Motl took office in 2013. That he has done more in the last two years than his predecessors did in 16 undercuts the claim that he is selectively enforcing the law against conservatives. His clear docket refutes it. It’s hard to argue he only pursues complaints against his enemies when he’s answered every single one.
But that’s what Art Wittich (R-Belgrade) insists. Since Motl filed a lawsuit alleging he failed to report in-kind donations and illegally coordinated with conservative nonprofits during his 2010 campaign, Wittich has claimed to be the victim of a political smear. In January, he got a boost from an unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal, which misreported the governor’s first name and failed to observe that Western Tradition Partnership, the group with which Wittich stands accused of coordinating in 2010, and American Tradition Partnership—the group his law firm represented in a campaign-finance lawsuit that year—are the same entity. So B-minus fact-checking, Wall Street Journal.
That’s Pulitzer journalism compared to the piece Will Swaim wrote for Reason last weekend, though. Headlined Montana Commission on Political Practices Targets Ideological Opponents, It is the only piece Swaim has contributed to that publication. He’s an editor at Watchdog.org, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. In 2011, the Franklin Center received 95% of its funding from Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, two linked 501(c)3 organizations that offer their contributors anonymity and the guarantee their money won’t go to liberal causes.
Donors Trust has also funded the legal defense foundation of National Right to Work, one of the organizations with which the Wittich campaign is accused of coordinating. Swaim, a quote-unquote journalist who believes Commissioner Motl is a partisan hack, happens to be funded by the same organizations Motl is pursuing. This is why we need a commissioner of political practices. It’s also why I can’t wait for March, when Motl v. Wittich will finally get its
day weeks in court and absolve Rep. Wittich of all wrongdoing. You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links.