Last week, Sen. Dee Brown, R–Hungry Horse, said something beautiful, in the same way that a collapsing ice shelf or any other tragic revelation is beautiful. She was speaking to Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl at a meeting of the State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Interim Committee to determine whether his office wielded too much power.
"The complaint is that you are the jury, the executor, the all-knowing," Brown said. "Sometimes complete power corrupts, and I wouldn't want that to happen in the commissioner's office."
It was beautiful partly because Motl got to point out that he lacks the power to punish or even indict anyone, so in fact he is neither jury nor executor. As for the claim that he is all-knowing, Brown seemed to support that one herself. You know the political practices commissioner is on to something when a legislative committee tries to shut him down.
Specifically, Motl is on to Art Wittich, R–Bozeman. When last we saw the Senate majority leader, he had filed his candidacy for a seat that was not up for election this year. Correcting that mistake on the last day before the deadline allowed him to file for HD 68, where he happens not to face any opponents in the Republican primary.
Wittich called Motl a "partisan hack" last week, shortly after the political practices commissioner complained to a district court that the majority leader illegally coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership during his 2010 campaign. Now called American Tradition Partnership, WTP is notable for three things:
• publishing a fake newspaper called the Montana Statesman that bore the headline "1 in 4 sex offenders go unregistered" over photographs of Steve Bullock and three sex offenders; and
• arguing in court that a box of documents found in a Colorado meth house detailing their coordination with various Republican campaigns was A) not theirs and B) they wanted it back; and
• printing and mailing about 13,000 letters in support of the Wittich campaign.
That last one we just heard about. Although Wittich claims he never coordinated with WTP—that would violate Montana election law—his signature was printed at the bottom of their letters. He paid WTP a little more than $7,000 for the batch, which Motl said wouldn't cover the costs of printing and stamps. From the commissioner's report, it appears that Wittich accepted in-kind contributions from and illegally coordinated with Montana's most notorious dark-money group.
Maybe that's why Senate Republicans decided that the commissioner shouldn't report so much. And maybe that's why Montanans should try to hang on to Motl with both hands.
Our state Senate hasn't confirmed a commissioner of political practices since 2010. It's a six-year appointment, but no commissioner has served a full term since Linda Vaughey was nominated in 1999. Our elected representatives seem to feel about election commissioners the way pro wrestlers feel about referees: They can be safely ignored, and when they can't be ignored they can be thrown out.
The week after our election commissioner accused the Senate majority leader of violating campaign finance laws, the majority essentially moved to throw him out. The State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Interim Committee drafted a bill that would strip the governor of his power to appoint commissioners, requiring him to choose instead from a list of Senate nominees.
Republicans complain that the office had become too partisan, but this bill would guarantee that whichever party wins the Senate could install one of its own as election commissioner. If Brown really believes that "complete power corrupts," she should not let the winners of elections decide who will investigate how they won.
That goes for the governor, too. Bullock appears to have made a good choice in Motl, but his status as a political appointee leaves him open to the kind of cynical criticism that Wittich levied last week. If we want the commissioner of political practices to be above partisan politics—as both parties say they do—we should make it a nonpartisan office, selected by the voters or by some knowledgeable, apolitical constituency like sitting judges.
It's not as if Motl has much power to abuse. He cannot pass judgment on campaigns or levy fines against elected officials. He cannot even bring charges. All he can do is make his findings known to the public, as he did last week. That Senate Republicans called an out-of-session committee meeting to shut him up should tell Montanans that he is saying something worth hearing.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and professional wrestling at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.