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Judge rejects Senate leader's conspiracy claims against governor, senator, state officials

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HELENA, Montana — A Helena judge has dismissed claims by the Montana Senate majority leader that the governor, a state senator and two commissioners of political practices conspired to drive him out of office.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, made the claims while defending himself against a civil lawsuit by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl alleging Wittich violated campaign laws by coordinating with and taking illegal corporate contributions from the secretive conservative group Western Tradition Partnership.

Wittich could be removed from office if District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock upholds Motl's findings.

Wittich filed counterclaims against Motl in May accusing the commissioner of having an ulterior motive for forcing Wittich out of the Legislature. He also accused Motl, Gov. Steve Bullock, state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, and former political practices commissioner Jim Murry of conspiring to do just that.

Sherlock rejected each of Wittich's claims in the decision on Tuesday, meaning the case against Wittich will proceed.

"Mr. Wittich will have to start looking at defending what he did and not accusing other people of doing something," Motl said Wednesday.

Wittich did not return a call seeking comment. His attorney, Chris Gallus, said he had not seen the ruling and could not comment.

Tutvedt said Wittich had made baseless accusations to divert attention from the allegations he is facing.

"I think Art's scrambling to find some way to slip the knot," Tutvedt said.

Wittich and state Rep. Mike Miller of Helmville are among nine Republican candidates that Motl says coordinated and took in-kind contributions from Western Tradition Partnership, now called American Tradition Partnership, in their 2010 campaigns.

State law bars corporations from making contributions or expenditures that support or oppose a candidate.

Motl has filed civil actions against all nine in state court, asking judges to confirm the findings and impose penalties. They have denied wrongdoing.

Miller's case is the only one that has been scheduled for trial, in May 2015.

Wittich had asked Judge Sherlock to rule that Montana's definition of a campaign contribution is unconstitutional, but the judge said that was a matter for trial. Wittich also sought rulings that Motl was guilty of misconduct and abused the process by bringing the civil action.

Sherlock rejected those claims, too, saying what Wittich calls Motl's "ulterior purpose" of removing him from office is actually overtly stated in Motl's lawsuit — and is required by law for the claims Motl brings.

Motl's official position gives him immunity from Wittich's claims and a private citizen does not have the authority to sue under Montana' election laws, Sherlock wrote in rejecting other claims by Wittich.

Finally, Sherlock ruled that Wittich's conspiracy claims against Motl, Murry, Tutvedt and Bullock were improper.

They could not have forced Wittich to inaccurately report his campaign contributions, illegally accept corporate contributions or failed to maintain his campaign documents, as Wittich is accused of doing, the judge wrote.

"If Wittich actually did accept and hide corporate contributions, it is inconceivable how Motl, Murry, Tutvedt or Bullock could possibly be liable to Wittich for such acts," Sherlock wrote.

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