Longtime readers of this column know that it has depended on Art Wittich in the same way the first Americans depended on the buffalo. It’s a cliché, but this column really does use every part of the former Republican state representative and senator. From his tenure as chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee—during which he vigorously opposed all services and most humans—to his leaked plans to “purge” moderates from his own party, to the time he accidentally filed for election in the wrong district in a way that allowed him to switch, after the deadline, to a place where he could run unopposed, he has been a staple of our diet. As an opinion columnist, I couldn’t ask for better: a man who consistently pursues arguments I disagree with, delivering outlandish quotes along the way, while looking like the hard-ass assistant principal from your high school.
Peak Wittich happened between 2014, when state Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl accused him of breaking campaign finance laws during his 2010 primary contest, and 2017, when the Montana Supreme Court upheld a jury’s finding that he had, in fact, done that. It was bittersweet. The investigation, and Wittich’s vociferous defense, were the culmination of his political career. It was like the finale of a fireworks display when they shoot everything off at once, in that it was both spectacular and tinged with regret that the show was drawing to a close. To mix a metaphor, it was that era of the buffalo when dandies started shooting them from trains.
All this is to say that I was sad to see Wittich fade from politics. Motl wanted a judge to remove him from office for his refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing, but that question was obviated when Wittich lost his bid for re-election in June 2016. His side of the war within the state GOP was routed, and he settled back into practicing law in Bozeman and being mean on Twitter. Then, at the end of October, Chief Disciplinary Counsel Michael Cotter filed a professional complaint against Wittich, arguing that his campaign finance violations constituted professional misconduct and he should be disbarred.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel operates under the supervision of the Montana Supreme Court, but it functions as a professional organization more than as an arm of the state. Last week, Wittich’s attorney, Mark Parker, asked the court to dismiss Cotter’s complaint, arguing that the remedies for campaign finance violations are outlined in statute and do not include revoking his client’s professional license. I am shocked to say that I agree.
That is not a legal opinion, of course. Like almost all legal matters, this one looks murky to me. It’s true that if Wittich were a dentist who illegally accepted campaign contributions from a national anti-union group, we would not be looking to take away his license to practice dentistry. As officers of the court, however, attorneys hold one another to a higher standard of ethics than members of other professions. And although it operates under the auspices of the state supreme court, the ODC is not an instrument of state power. If the American Dental Association were trying to boot some rogue dentist for secretly taking money from Big Toothbrush, we laypersons would not pretend to have an opinion. We should probably let the lawyers settle this among themselves.
Still, it feels like the ODC is pursuing Wittich into private life for what he has already been punished for in public. Seeing him lose an election before he could be removed from office might have felt like watching the Hamburglar get hit by a bus on his way to court, but there remains the matter of his $68,000 fine. There is also the ignominy and the utter desolation of his political career.
Wittich went from senate majority leader to punchline in less than five years. His sharp tongue and hard-right views made him a villain of the weekly news, but in its broader arc, his story is tragic. He swept a four-way primary in his first election and rode a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm to one of the most powerful positions in the state. He got everything he wanted, and he lost it within the warranty period of a new car—mostly for stuff he did in that first primary. I don’t like how he wielded power, but I suspect that losing it felt worse than any punishment we can levy.
Is the ODC within its rights to disbar him? Probably, yeah, for all I know. But what will that change? One of the most prominent heels in Montana politics will be reminded, again, that he shouldn’t have done what he did seven years ago. With due respect to the ODC, I suspect Art Wittich thinks about that a lot already.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and sympathy for the hardasses at combatblog.net.