The road trip from the Colorado statehouse to the Capitol building in Montana is about 800 miles, but the psychological distance from a Denver meth-house to the office of Helena's Commissioner of Political Practices has to be greater than that.
And that's only the beginning of this bizarre story, and just the latest example of partisan public officials using government power to crush their political opponents.
In Washington, D.C., Lois Lerner, head of the tax-exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), allegedly slowed or killed the nonprofit applications of conservative and libertarian organizations. In Wisconsin, Kevin Kennedy, director of his state's political ethics organization and Lerner's longtime "professional friend," worked with a rogue Milwaukee district attorney to spy on, and seize the personal papers and equipment of, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. In Texas, the benign-sounding Texas Ethics Commission convened to determine whether a conservative nonprofit journalist is really a journalist and therefore deserving of First Amendment protections—or is an activist who does not.
In each case, the officials leading the charge are Democrats. And in each case, they invoke the language of campaign-finance reform and the specter of so-called "dark money"—donations to nonprofit organizations that Democrats allege have tipped the electoral scales rightward.
In Helena, the state's appointed Commissioner of Political Practices is using his Montana subpoena power and budget to punish conservative politicians and nonprofits. He alleges conservative nonprofits and candidates illegally coordinated their activities in 2010 campaigns.
One of his targets, former state Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (R-Bozeman), will go to a jury trial in March.
Wittich says he's not only innocent, but will pull back the sheets on what he calls "blatant political thuggery" by a Democrat eager to take down Montana conservatives.
Wittich is about as conservative as a state official gets, leading the fight for education savings accounts, lower taxes, gun rights and reforming public-employee collective bargaining. He was also key to blocking Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act from 2011 to 2015.
His nemesis is Jonathan Motl, the man whom Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, appointed Commissioner of Political Practices in 2013. Inarguably liberal—he worked on campaign finance issues for Common Cause and Stand with Montanans and is a longtime ally of Ralph Nader—Motl nevertheless says he plays it straight.
"Motl defends his tenure as one spent impartially applying the Montana campaign practice laws he's known intimately for more than two decades," said a reporter for the alternative-weekly Missoula Independent.
In fact, the Commissioner of Political Practices website shows that Motl settles most political ethics complaints as low-level technical violations. He has chosen to litigate just 12 cases, all of them involving Republican candidates or conservatives who supported conservative candidates or causes. Of the nine targeted candidates, two settled out of court, and two others didn't contest the charges and were found guilty. Wittich is among the five whom Motl will take to trial.
While he says he can't discuss details, Motl tells Watchdog,org he's eager for the trial.
"Mr. Wittich will be very ably represented, and I think it's important that the two sides will be represented in court," he says. "This is an important issue for Montanans."
In his complaint against Wittich, Motl says he has documents discovered in a Denver meth lab that show the lawmaker is guilty of "consenting to receiving and coordinating with third-party corporate entities" during the 2010 election cycle. The complaint adds that, in failing to report the full value of printing his own campaign mailers, he failed to disclose a gift.
In a November filing, Motl went farther, accusing Wittich of receiving "secret and improper contributions" from people with ties to corporations. Motl called that evidence Wittich had committed a kind of thought-crime: he allegedly "pledged primary fealty to that corporate group of special interests rather than to the people of his district."
In his response, Wittich denies any coordination and says there's no evidence he coordinated with anyone. His own expert witness shows that Wittich may actually have overpaid for his campaign printing. He says he doesn't know where to begin on the pledging-of-fealty allegation. "That's just plain stupid," he says.
The commissioner's critics say he's clearly a partisan.
"Motl is engaged in the same type of abuse as his Wisconsin counterparts in the John Doe: Selective and abusive attacks on conservatives designed to smear and suppress political activity that he does not like," says Eric O'Keefe, director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth and, like Wittich, a target of political investigators.
Photo Credit: Tracy Elizabeth/Flickr