Taking the helm 

Montana's new Senate majority leader linked to ATP

Last year, American Tradition Partnership won its most prominent legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Colorado-based nonprofit successfully challenged Montana's 100-year-old Corrupt Practices Act, which barred corporate spending in state campaigns. What started as a district court-level fight effectively became the legal basis for applying Citizens United v. FEC to state campaign finance laws.

In the beginning of that legal battle, ATP turned to the Bozeman-based Wittich Law Firm for representation—the firm owned by Republican Sen. Art Wittich, who recently made headlines as newly elected Senate majority leader for the 2013 Montana Legislature.

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Records show state Sen. Art Wittich, the newly elected Senate majority leader, has connections to both “dark money” group American Tradition Partnership and Livingston-based Direct Mail and Communications.

"Does the U.S. Supreme Court have any sway in the law in Montana? That's the question," Wittich says. "It was an interesting case. I didn't first chair it, it wasn't my case. But it was an important constitutional law question and it needed to be brought up and argued."

Wittich was elected in 2010 amid a nationwide Republican surge, trouncing Democrat Diane Elliott in the race to replace termed-out Republican Gary Perry. Now Wittich is busying himself trying to avoid the partisan gridlock that dominated his first session in the legislature, working alongside new Senate President Jeff Essman and other GOP leaders. He may come from a pro-gun rights, pro-life, limited-government platform himself, but he says he's optimistic about the legislature's chances of approaching functionality this time around. He's even willing to venture the possibility of a balanced budget getting completed on time.

"Is there a different tone this session? Yeah," Wittich says. "You have new leadership on both the House and the Senate. You have new leadership in the governor's office. I see a different tone, but there are still legitimate differences on the role of government that need to be discussed."

Wittich's rise to leadership is hardly the first newsworthy nugget about the former Forest Service firefighter, Coast Guard environmental lawyer and Montana Power Company legal counsel. His law firm has been at the center of a number of high-profile cases in the state over the past few years. Wittich himself represented Bozeman-based conservative think tank Montana Policy Institute in a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Administration. MPI demanded that the state release salary data for some 14,000 state employees in electronic form. A district judge ruled in the group's favor last spring, and the state agreed to pay $5,700 toward MPI's legal fees in a subsequent settlement.

"To me, it was a good government case," Wittich says. "[MPI] asked for the data, it was public information, they should have been able to receive it. We had to fight to get it."

In light of recent investigations, however, ATP is perhaps the Wittich Law Firm's most notable client. The group has repeatedly challenged campaign finance laws in Montana and nationwide over the past few years, but became the subject of significant public scrutiny last fall when PBS aired a "Frontline" investigation into ATP's alleged illegal coordination with political campaigns in Montana. The broadcast hinged on a collection of documents recovered from a meth house in Colorado that appeared to link ATP to various state and local candidates from the 2008 election.

According to Wittich, ATP was represented by a partner at his firm during the 2010 district court fight against the Corrupt Practices Act. ATP went by the name Western Tradition Partnership back then, and a collection of checks made out by WTP reveals payments for the firm's legal work—one check directly to Art Wittich for $2,000 signed June 14, 2010, and two $3,500 checks to Wittich Law signed in August and September 2010. The checks appeared among hundreds of WTP payment records loaded to the web by "Frontline" last November, separate of the meth house documents.

According to the Montana Secretary of State's office, Wittich Law Firm is still the registered agent for American Tradition Partnership and was when the group had filed under the name Western Tradition Partnership. Wittich also has political connections to Direct Mail and Communications, a Livingston print shop run by the wife of one-time WTP official Christian LeFer. Wittich's campaign finance reports for 2010 show $7,915.43 in payments to Direct Mail for numerous campaign material and mailing expenses. One past Direct Mail employee told the Huffington Post last November that her job also involved work for WTP and other related groups.

"They've had a lot of other issues and a lot of other lawyers working on things," Wittich says of WTP. "Did we understand all of Western Tradition Partnership? No. Did we understand all of their legal issues? No. Certainly I didn't."

Wittich says the recent indications of WTP's close relationship with Direct Mail during the 2008 and 2010 elections haven't raised any new concerns over the work done on his own campaign. He says political candidates hire outside mailing services to do campaign work all the time. "Back then, I don't think people understood all of the relationships or issues [at play inside WTP]," he says. Asked whether his firm's handling of the WTP case had increased his own familiarity with the nonprofit, Wittich adds, "I didn't understand all of their internal workings and organizations."

It's plausible that few outside Direct Mail and WTP did. But the red flags were there nonetheless. According to Secretary of State filings, Direct Mail shared a principal office address with WTP in Aurora, Colo. And Allison LeFer, the owner of Direct Mail, signed the bulk of WTP's checks back in 2010—including those made out to Wittich's firm.

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