- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The state’s campaign finance regulator asked a judge Friday to remove a legislator from office for taking illegal corporate contributions and coordinating with a secretive conservative group during the 2010 election.

If the civil complaint is successful against Republican Rep. Mike Miller of Helmville, it would be the first time a Montana judge has removed a sitting legislator from office.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl called the case “incredibly important to the political system” because of allegations of widespread involvement by the nonprofit group Western Tradition Partnership in the campaigns of dozens of candidates in 2010.

But he acknowledged he had taken an extreme step with the legal action.

“It’s not good to have somebody stepping into the political system like this,” Motl said. ‘It should only be done in a circumstance like what happened in 2010 when you had such a significant intrusion into the candidate system by these third-party entities.”

Miller said by email that his campaign did not violate any laws. He declined further comment about the case until he hires an attorney.

The case has been assigned to District Judge Kathy Seeley of Helena.

In December, Motl ruled that Miller broke state law by coordinating with and accepting illegal donations from Western Tradition Partnership to defeat Joe Dooling in the 2010 Republican primary for House District 84.

Miller underpaid the group and its affiliate, Direct Mail and Communications Inc., for campaign letters it produced and distributed, amounting to an unreported and illegal in-kind campaign contribution, Motl found.

The group also sent out fliers attacking Dooling in what Motl found was an illegal coordination with the Miller campaign. Motl also said Miller failed to maintain campaign records.

Motl’s findings don’t have the force of law, so his office must bring the matter to a judge to decide its merits and apply state campaign finance laws.

The court filing is the first enforcement action taken since Motl began his investigation into complaints of illegal coordination between Republican candidates and Western Tradition Partnership in 2010.

Motl has issued findings of illegal coordination and unreported contributions against four other legislative candidates, all with allegations similar to those against Miller.

The commissioner opened investigations into similar complaints against four more 2010 candidates on Friday, including Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman.

Wittch said the more than $7,000 he spent on mail services with Direct Mail was a market-value transaction and there was no coordination between his campaign and a third-party group.

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