By Michael Siebert/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – The Montana House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would shutter the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, which some critics say could put the integrity of Montana elections in jeopardy.
The bill, introduced by a state lawmaker tied to one of the office’s most significant investigations, would place oversight and enforcement of campaign laws back into the hands of the Secretary of State and Attorney General, as it was before the office’s creation in 1975.
Supporters say that would make the job apolitical. Others say it only makes it more partisan.
“It’s an asinine solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad.
House Bill 340, introduced by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, comes on the heels of an investigation by the office into the role of “dark money” in Montana elections. Nine lawmakers were investigated, including former state Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who was found guilty of accepting almost $20,000 in outside contributions last year.
Documents obtained by the office named Skees among the state lawmakers allegedly involved in illegally receiving expenditures from corporations. Skees denies any wrongdoing, and says his bill isn’t about any “beef” he has with current Commissioner Jonathan Motl.
“This office has absolute power,” Skees said, arguing the commissioner has an excess of authority in determining the outcome of cases seen by the office.
The bill has opponents from both sides of the aisle, including Cook and Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth.
“The office works fine the way it is,” Custer said. She said the position requires a qualified individual, and both she and Cook said they did not feel Motl was guilty of any impropriety.
Custer described the bill is a “witch hunt.” “Somebody’s got their hand in the cookie jar and got slapped,” Custer said. “This is a personal vendetta.”
The bill would shift responsibility for the filing of reports related to campaign practices and lobbying to the Secretary of State, while the state Attorney General would investigate complaints. Both offices are currently held by Republicans.
Cook said he does not believe the role of commissioner is partisan, and said moving authority to those offices puts that role in the hands of “people that are even more political.”
Skees sponsored the bill along with 29 other Republican representatives, including House Judiciary Chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, who was also named in one of the documents and similarly denies any involvement. Only five Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill during its final 54-45 vote in the House — Cook and Custer, as well as Frank Garner of Kalispell, Walt Sales of Manhattan and Ray Shaw of Sheridan.
The bill will now be considered by the Senate.
Skees said the concern stems from the fact that the governor appoints the commissioner.
“It’s appointed by one party, because the governor is one party, and it’s partisan because it doesn’t answer to anybody but that one party,” Skees said.
The commissioner is selected from a list of names drafted by both parties and given to the governor. The office holder’s term is limited to six years, so as not to match the governor’s term.
Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said some Republicans felt unjustly targeted by the commissioner’s office.
“It’s obvious from the last six years we’ve had some problems with that office,” Hertz said.
The most notable investigation undertaken by the commissioner’s office in the last six years began when a trove of documents showed several Montana politicians had illegally coordinated with a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization on their campaigns. Such organizations are only allowed to focus on issues, and are barred from working directly with candidates by Montana law, partially because the groups do not have limits on contributions like candidates do.
The documents were discovered in a drug house in Denver, Colorado in 2011 after the car carrying them was stolen. The documents were later obtained by the commissioner’s office. Nine candidates were discovered to have been working with a group called Western Tradition Partnership, a conservative issue advocacy group that was later revealed to have been overseen by the National Right to Work Committee, an anti-union organization.
Following the discovery of those documents, the commissioner’s office obtained a spreadsheet showing a list of candidates who had coordinated with the Western Tradition Partnership during the 2010 election cycle. Among those named in the document is Art Wittich, a former legislator who was found guilty in court in 2016 of accepting contributions from WTP.
The spreadsheet, which Jonathan Motl said was found on several computer archives maintained by multiple National Right to Work Committee staffers, shows Skees ordered a package of multiple campaign services known as “the works.” Montana law prohibits corporations from spending money or providing paid professional staff services directly to candidates.
Skees denied asking for these comprehensive services. “I didn’t get the works,” Skees said.
He argued because the spreadsheet was found “in a drug dealer’s house” its legitimacy should have been called into question.
He said he never worked with WTP to create attack ads, and denied working with Western Tradition Partnership at all, saying he used a mail house service run by the wife of WTP’s then-director of strategic programming, Christian LeFer.
“His position is the same as the others were,” Motl said, on Skees’ denial of ordering “the works.” “That is why we had to go to litigation. They all denied that they were involved.”
Motl said Skees was not investigated due to a lack of sufficient evidence within the meth house documents. Skees’ name was only directly tied to ordering the works when it appeared in the spreadsheet found on National Right to Work computers. The commissioner’s office is required to write a sufficiency decision within four years of the acts being committed.
Of the nine candidates the office found to have coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership, seven were found to have been in violation. Wittich was found guilty by a jury, two had their cases settled by judges, and four eventually admitted fault pre-trial. Two more cases have yet to be heard.
Rep. Rob Cook said the actions of groups like Western Tradition Partnership helped push out moderate Republicans from the state’s Legislature.
Rep. Amanda Curtis, D-Butte, said eliminating the Commissioner of Political Practices would remove oversight in elections, and would allow for more undisclosed spending and receiving of funds.
“We are taking one step back toward the day when money ruled in politics,” Curtis said.
Bob Brown, a former Republican Secretary of State, said the position was created partially in response to the Watergate scandal. Before the office’s establishment, campaign filings were done with the Secretary of State, as they would be under HB 340.
Brown said the position was designed to put the practice of investigating campaign finance into more nonpartisan hands. He said this is a better-coordinated method.
Brown said the conviction of Wittich and the investigation of other Republicans is simply part of the job.
“Their solution to it is to eliminate the law and the political mechanism whereby these convictions took place,” Brown said. “That sends a cold shudder down my spine. I’m amazed at their brazenness for doing it.”
Montana is known nationwide for having strong campaign practice and transparency laws. Last year, Montana received an A grade from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Montana has resisted corporate influence on elections since voters passed the Corrupt Practices Act by initiative in 1912. The law restricted the amount of money candidates could receive from corporations.
Montana also resisted the federal Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed corporations the right to make political contributions. The state’s resistance was overruled by Supreme Court.
HB 340 was referred to committee after first reading in the Senate last week. If it wins Senate approval, it would be presented to Gov. Steve Bullock, who has veto authority.
“The idea to just abolish the Commissioner of Political Practices, an office that was created post-Watergate … I think is ill thought-out,” Bullock said.
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.