ANACONDA — Attorneys representing state Rep. Art Wittich will appeal a key ruling that would have set the stage for a long-awaited political corruption trial against the Bozeman Republican later this month.
The move came only hours after an Anaconda judge ruled on a slew of pretrial filings submitted by attorneys for Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and Wittich, who is accused of accepting unreported contributions from an anti-union group in 2010.
Wittich’s attorney, Quentin Rhoades, said Wednesday he had finalized a notice of appeal to be filed with the Montana Supreme Court over one of those decisions — District Court Judge Ray Dayton’s dismissal of a motion to have the case thrown out.
Rhoades had argued Motl, the state’s top political cop, didn’t have jurisdiction to seek penalties against Wittich, since the Bozeman Republican wasn’t included on the complaint that sparked initial inquiries into anti-union groups.
He’ll now look to make the same point in front of the state’s highest court, where clerks said they had not received an appeal filing by late Wednesday. Attorneys representing both trial parties confirmed they were aware of the move, as well as the cancellation of a pretrial conference that had been scheduled for Thursday.
The appeal is likely to dramatically delay or even derail proceedings scheduled in the high-profile campaign finance case, one that has featured years of sniping in the press and escalating courtroom accusations of political bias, destruction of evidence and professional misconduct. If the state Supreme Court rejects or refuses to hear Wittich’s appeal, the case would likely wind up back in front Judge Dayton, who has issued six unchallenged decisions on the matter.
One of those rulings dismissed Wittich’s attempts to block testimony from five different witnesses, including Motl and three people linked to Western Tradition Partnership, a nonprofit affiliate of the national anti-union group that allegedly illegally coordinated with Wittich’s campaign.
Another denied a filing that sought to prevent all references to “dark money” during Wittich’s expected trial.
But the judge granted, at least in part, three other requests seeking to limit or exclude trial discussion of Motl’s 2014 administrative decision against Wittich, along with any “reference to or evidence of” documents related to other campaign complaints.
If and when he gets the chance, Dayton plans to make decisions on the admissibility of similar filings on a case-by-case basis.
A separate ruling asked attorneys representing both trial parties to file briefs on the admissibility of a spreadsheet that allegedly contains evidence of Wittich ordering “the works” -- a raft of campaign services that included everything from initial fundraising contracts to a late-stage direct mail blitz aimed at primary opponents in the last two weeks of the 2010 campaign.
Wittich has denied those and other allegations and called Motl’s actions a political “witch hunt.”
His attorneys in January filed a motion accusing Motl of destroying evidence that would have bolstered Wittich’s claims of biased prosecution, including an email archive belonging to former COPP investigator Julie Steab.
Motl denied the accusation and sought sanctions against Rhoades. Gene Jarussi, an attorney for the state, has raised the possibility that Steab herself deleted the emails, a charge she vehemently denied during a Monday hearing in Anaconda.
Montana Chief Information Officer Ron Baldwin said in a sworn statement he knew Steab purged the emails “because it was done through use of Ms. Steab’s personal sign-in login ID and password.”
But Baldwin, who was called to testify in support of the state's claims, said under cross examination that anyone with Steab’s email and password could've deleted her emails, which were eventually recovered by IT staff.
COPP Program Supervisor Mary Baker, who also took the stand, said she couldn't rule out the possibility that some of those access credentials were inadvertently forwarded to Motl or someone else after Steab’s departure in October 2013.
A day after hearing that testimony, Motl agreed to produce the emails to Wittich’s attorneys, prompting Dayton to throw out the motion accusing the first-term political commissioner of destroying evidence.
Reached for comment after catching wind of the appeal, Motl sounded defiant.
“The appeal just adds another layer of motions that will be dealt with, but eventually there will be justice," he said. “ ... By denial of seven motions, the district court has effectively removed all of Wittich’s ability to avoid a trial and justice. The only remaining avenue for Mr. Wittich is delay by appeal.”
The trial against Wittich is set to start March 28 in Helena.