Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth has had his name tied to every high-profile case of political controversy and campaign chicanery in Montana for the past four and a half years. In 2008, his office launched an investigation into a string of sleazy election-cycle mailers accusing several Republican incumbent legislators of taking a soft stance on issues like abortion and child abuse. When the Republican Party accused Gov. Brian Schweitzer of producing a self-promoting public service message using state resources during his re-election bid that same year, it was Unsworth who issued the unpopular ruling that Schweitzer had violated state ethics laws. Schweitzer later sued Unsworth and requested the law be declared unconstitutional.
Past targets of campaign finance investigations—like Montanans in Action Director Trevis Butcher—have denounced Unsworth's work to out their funding sources as "petty bureaucratic harassment," and even national groups have attacked Unsworth personally as a "political hack." Others, however, have praised Unsworth's work to curb corruption in state government; in a recent letter to the editor in the Helena Independent-Record, Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman stated it's "important that Commissioner Unsworth continues to stand up for the people of Montana."
Unsworth, a tireless fan of full disclosure, is the first to admit his office's performance has been a mixed bag. He entered his term hoping to better the Office of Political Practices' turn-around time for ethics complaints and update the state's antiquated campaign disclosure website. And while he and his staff have doggedly policed Montana's political arena on behalf of voters, Unsworth candidly admits to a list of failures he says were out of his hands. He spoke at length about his tenure just a few weeks before leaving the office.
Indy: You entered this office with two clear goals in mind: improving turn-around time for political practice complaints and bringing campaign disclosure in Montana into the digital age. What's been the greatest challenge in tackling those goals?
Unsworth: We're so overwhelmed with complaints, we're so short of resources here, that we just can't keep up. It's physically impossible to keep up with the traffic, so we end up picking and choosing what we work on. The practice in the past has been to handle the older stuff first, put it in the pile and work from the bottom up...We're working with a legal budget now that is down around where it was 10 years ago when we were faced with a dozen complaints. Right now we have 56 complaints on the docket; we're facing several lawsuits and a couple ethics proceedings.
Indy: You say your office currently has 56 political practices complaints on file, a dramatic increase over past decades. What issue do you find most often lies at the root of these complaints?
Unsworth: The complaints that we're seeing more and more of today—the serious complaints, the ones that concern me most—are the complaints of anonymous campaigning. There's this notion out there that there are loopholes and that loopholes can be exploited so groups and individuals can campaign anonymously, can try to influence your vote anonymously. That's counter to why we're here, it's counter to the basic campaign law across the country, and it's counter to the court's findings. The courts have found clearly, up to and including Citizens United in January [an historic ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that lifted a century-old ban forbidding corporations and labor unions from direct involvement in politics], that the voters have a right to know who's trying to influence their vote...but at the same time, there are groups increasingly in Montana and around the country that seem to be taking advantage of some kind of uncertainty or at least taking advantage of the perceived change that came from Citizen's United, and are claiming they can campaign anonymously. Somehow they think they have a right to influence your vote under basically a fictitious name.
Indy: Can you offer specific examples?
Unsworth: I'd point to Montanans in Action and the 2006 ballot measures spearheaded by Montanan Trevis Butcher, and the more recent activity by the Western Tradition Partnership spearheaded by some Montanans, or transplants...There's an element of homegrown, but the money, the big money, appears to be coming from outside the state. In the case of Montanans in Action, it was Howard Rich in action, it wasn't Montanans in action. Howard Rich pumped something like $1.8 million into Montana. Trevis Butcher continues to claim that they were completely above board, and that he was and is Montanans in Action. But something like a quarter of one percent of their money came from Montana. In the case of Western Tradition Partnership, we don't know where their money came from. We, and voters, have no idea how much was spent, where the money came from, where they spent it.
Indy: Western Tradition Partnership recently filed a lawsuit against you and your office over your investigation into their violation of state ethics laws. What's your response to the suit?
Unsworth: In 2008, in the primary, three Republican incumbents were defeated by upstart Republican politicians, and they were defeated, it appeared, based on a late, sleazy campaign. Postcards that claimed, for instance, that Bruce Malcolm coddled pedophiles. Bruce Malcolm is an old-time rancher in Montana, and the notion that he coddles pedophiles is ridiculous. But for whatever reason, a campaign based on the kind of sleazy advertising that in the past we hadn't seen much in Montana was effective and three incumbent Republican legislators were knocked off in the primary. In the general, we saw more campaign flyers that were of that same type: cartoon characters, bright colors, oversized mailers, in-your-face language.
Indy: And Western Tradition Partnership is asserting it had a legal defense for those actions?
Unsworth: Basically they're claiming the First Amendment gives them a right to try to influence your vote anonymously, and we believe clearly that's not the case. If there ever was a question about it, it's been settled with Citizens United, and to claim that they have a right to campaign anonymously suggests to me either that they're being dishonest or that they just didn't take time to read what is probably the biggest decision to come down on campaign finance since Buckley in the '70s...This notion that they're just talking about issues is silly.
Indy: What do you think attracts these out-of-state or transplanted interests to Montana?
Unsworth: It's fairly easy to influence a race in Montana, for a number of reasons. The races are low cost; you can make a pretty major television buy in Montana for a couple hundred thousand dollars, you can buy local media and it can be very effective. Local radio is still effective in Montana. There are still markets that rely on local radio and local newspapers...And I think the stakes can be high here for outsiders. We're resource rich, and that's not only raw resources but things like home sites, beautiful vistas, trophy elk hunts, solitude. All those things are very valuable today.
Indy: What's been your single greatest frustration in trying to improve this office?
Unsworth: The biggest frustration up until recently has been our inability to get a good, modern, online campaign reporting system in place. It was my first priority coming into the office, and there'd been quite a lot of work done on it up to that time. The project was started in 2003, and I came in in 2006. You approach these things in a logical way, and I think it's just natural to assume and expect that through logical processes you can get the job done...There's a system out there that's better than the one that was there before, but we clearly failed in our efforts.
Indy: Failure is a strong summary. Why all the setbacks?
Unsworth: We just basically had the legs cut out from under us in the '09 legislative session, and we've just kind of limped along since. We lost $100,000 a year from about a half-million dollar budget in the 2009 Legislature. So going into the Legislature, I spent about $225,000 on legal services and we were making good progress. This year our legal budget, as a result of that cut, is $67,000 for the year. We went from spending $225,000 to this year having $67,000 to spend on legal services.
Indy: You allude in your budget comments that there's a certain anti-disclosure sentiment among some Montanans, including state legislators. Have you noticed that sentiment increasing in recent years?
Unsworth: I've noticed that the people we rule against are pretty vocal, and some of them are in the legislature. For example, [Rep.] Ken Peterson has been, is I think still, [Public Service Commissioner] Brad Molnar's attorney on the ethics [violation] proceeding [Editor's note: Peterson confirmed that he is still representing Molnar in this case]. He worked against us in 2009 and I wouldn't be surprised if he worked against us in 2011 as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He does not like this office, he doesn't like anything I've done, and he's in a position of authority. I know Western Tradition Partnership has vowed to overhaul the laws...I think they're making the case in the Legislature that they've been wronged and that needs to be corrected by changing the law. Because our office costs money, I think there's a natural tendency to say, "Can we do away with it?" And then there will be people that will jump in, like possibly Ken Peterson and the people who are backing Western Tradition Partnership, and say, 'Sure we can do away with that.'
Indy: What would closing down the Office of Political Practices or doing away with our state's disclosure law mean for Montana?
Unsworth: If Montana does away with its disclosure law, then we're all alone in the country. The trend certainly is in the other direction. States all across the country have been reinforcing their ethics laws, putting into place new laws. There's a major effort from this country to bring campaign disclosure and ethics laws to other countries, to other governments, as part of exporting democracy. It's part of the package.
Indy: How have you seen constituents—just the average Montana voter—respond to this office?
Unsworth: I go back and forth on that. One day I get the sense that people don't care. The next day I hear from someone who has a very insightful, nuanced understanding of why the law's there and why a particular decision or a particular story is important. Maybe we're seeing more on the extremes. We're seeing a growing group that is so cynical that none of it matters, a "government is corrupt, let's admit it and move on" notion. And on the other side, people like those I've had more involved conversations with who are very concerned about what's going on, about corruption in government and what it's doing to our democratic processes, the fact that people have bought politicians.
Indy: You haven't sugarcoated much. How can you justify being so open about the failures of your office?
Unsworth: I've been cautioned about that by our attorneys. But I come, partly by training and partly by experience, down on the side of putting the information out there. I'm not sharp enough to make calculations, so I go with the underlying principle that it's best that people know that information is a benefit in and of itself as long as it's honest.
Indy: So what's next for you?
Unsworth: I'm going to get a job, I hope. And it won't be delivering pizza. I hope...I'm nowhere near retirement.