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Judge rejects Senate leader's attempt to toss complaint of illegal contributions, coordination

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HELENA, Montana — A Helena judge has rejected the Montana Senate majority leader's attempt to dismiss allegations that his campaign took illegal contributions and coordinated with a conservative group.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, had argued that Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl improperly filed the civil complaint in Lewis and Clark County district court instead of in Gallatin County, where Wittich signed the 2010 campaign-finance report that is the subject of the dispute.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock struck down that argument in his order Monday denying Wittich's motion to dismiss Motl's allegations of state campaign-finance law infractions.

A violation would only occur when the commissioner receives the report in Lewis and Clark County, not when the candidate completes the report, Sherlock ruled

"The approach argued by Wittich would lead to absurd and unworkable results," Sherlock wrote. "If the alleged violation ripened upon mere completion of the report, candidates could not only easily shop for the most favorable venue in Montana ... but could also immunize themselves by simply signing their reports on a quick day trip to Williston, North Dakota, or better yet, Lethbridge, Alberta. This clearly makes no sense."

Sherlock's ruling means Motl's case against Wittich will go on. The commissioner earlier this year filed the complaint after concluding Wittich was one of nine Republican candidates in 2010 who violated state campaign-finance laws in their dealings with Western Tradition Partnership.

The group purported to be an educational organization. Sherlock previously found it was active in campaigns to elect or defeat candidates.

If Sherlock upholds Motl's findings, Wittich could be removed from office and as a candidate in November's election.

Wittich has denied any wrongdoing. He did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

One other sitting legislator, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, also is among the nine candidates implicated in Motl's findings. His case also is pending before Sherlock.

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