Commissioner: Senate leader broke campaign laws


HELENA, Mont. - The state commissioner of political practices says Montana Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich broke Montana campaign laws by coordinating with and accepting illegal contributions from a conservative group during his 2010 primary election campaign.

Commissioner Jonathan Motl released his findings Tuesday. They are part of an ongoing investigation into the involvement of Western Tradition Partnership in Republican candidates' campaigns over the last two Montana elections.

Wittich isn't the first Republican alleged to have illegally coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership. Motl has issued 19 other rulings, involving five other candidates.

In January the commissioner ruled against 2010 legislative candidates Joel Boniek of Livingston and Terry Bannan of Belgrade. Allegations included campaigns coordinating attack ads and taking unreported in-kind donations from Western Tradition Partnership.

NBC Montana spoke to Motl and Wittich on Tuesday.

"Candidate Wittich cooperated with several corporations provided resources to his campaign that weren't reported and disclosed," said Motl.

"It is completely false," said Wittich.

The 37-page document outlines the allegations. We found there are two major sections -- accepting illegal corporate contributions through coordination and failure to maintain or produce campaign finance records.  

"We have never had this sort of corporate intrusion to this degree in our candidate races," said Motl.

Specifically, Motl pointed out some 12,000 letters mailed on behalf of Wittich, which he said Wittich's campaign coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership. The commissioner of political practices says that group is linked to other campaign violations.

"Between Western Tradition Partnership, direct mail and another Montana nonprofit, Montana Citizens for the Right to Work, collectively print, produce, and mail thousands of letters on behalf of the candidates they supported," Motl.

Motl believes that Wittich's actions were not accidental, and that he knowingly paid a cheaper price for the cost of the letters.

"The corporation that did that actually went out and raised money specifically to become involved in the 2010 campaigns," said Motl.

We called Wittich on Tuesday afternoon to ask him about the allegations. He contends he did nothing wrong.

"It is completely false. How I handled my campaign in 2010 was in accordance with the practice and the customs and the rules of 2010," said Wittich.

Motl says now the case is in the hands of the court.

Western Tradition Partnership has since changed its name to American Tradition Partnership. In November, a judge slapped the American Tradition Partnership with a $260,000 fine for failing to disclose campaign spending during the 2008 elections.

Motl says he intends to have a judge weigh in on the findings and decide whether Wittich should be removed from the 2014 ballot. Currently there is no timeline for the issue to go before a judge.

Wittich is running for the open Montana House District 68 seat against Democrat Ashley Stevick.

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