- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Montana legislator should be fined about $145,000 and be removed from office for committing the most serious violation of campaign laws in state history, an attorney for the state said in a court filing Friday.

A judge also should bar Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman from running for office again until the fine is paid and his campaign finance reports are corrected, Special Attorney Gene Jarussi said in the documents.

A jury in April found that Wittich took $19,599 in illegal and unreported in-kind contributions from an anti-union organization during his 2010 campaign for state Senate. District Judge Ray Dayton now must impose penalties, and he has set a June 17 hearing to decide the matter.

Jarussi, who is representing Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, urged Dayton to throw the book at Wittich because the seriousness of case and because of Wittich’s refusal to accept responsibility.

“In short, this is the most serious violation of Montana’s campaign laws ever,” Jarussi wrote.

Quentin Rhoades, a Missoula attorney who represents Wittich, said he will argue that Wittich’s actions are protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Constitution’s authority is superior to Montana laws, regardless of whether Motl believes the campaign violations are the most egregious in the state’s history, Rhoades said.

“Whether or not it is, we think it’s consistent with the U.S. Constitution,” he told The Associated Press.

Wittich should be fined no more than $19,599 - the amount the jury found he illegally took - and be allowed to remain in office and on the 2016 ballot, another Wittich attorney, Lucinda Luetkemeyer, said in his own court filing submitted Friday.

Wittich no longer holds the office he was elected to in 2010, when the violations occurred, so the question of removing him from that office is moot, Luetkemeyer wrote.

Wittich served one term in the Senate seat he won in that 2010 election where he was found to have taken illegal contributions. In 2014, he was voted into the state House seat for which he is now seeking re-election against challenges from two Republican primary opponents.

Dayton’s decision will come after the June 7 primary elections.

Jurors in the civil trial found that Wittich took contributions from the National Right to Work Committee and affiliated organizations. Wittich strongly denied any illegal coordination and accused Motl of going after him because he is a conservative.

Candidates cannot receive contributions from corporations like Right to Work, and must fully report donations and spending under Montana law.

A Montana judge has not removed an elected official from office since 1940.

Motl also had been seeking a ruling from Dayton that what Wittich did amounted to corruption. But Jarussi’s recent court filing appears to back off that position somewhat, saying corruption will only be brought up if Wittich challenges the constitutionality of Montana’s campaign laws during this penalty phase.

Rhoades said in response that Motl’s pivot is a tacit acknowledgment the case against Wittich is not about corruption.

A ruling by Dayton that Wittich’s actions amount to corruption or the appearance of corruption would support Motl in defending Montana’s low campaign contribution limits against a pending challenge in a separate federal lawsuit.

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