Republicans in the Montana Senate last week had a caustic reaction to Gov. Steve Bullock's appointment of Helena attorney Jonathan Motl as the state's new Commissioner of Political Practices. Senate President Jeff Essman was particularly quick to challenge Motl's impartiality, pointing out his past contributions to Bullock's campaigns for both attorney general and governor. Motl's fate as commissioner may rest in the hands of those very detractors when the Senate convenes to confirm his appointment in 2015.
But Motl isn't obsessing over the question of confirmation. He's instead focusing on the more immediate issues facing his new officenamely, addressing a backlog of 45 formal complaints of campaign misdeeds dating back to 2010. Motl, who on June 10 is leaving the private firm he co-founded 31 years ago to work as commissioner full-time, is the fourth person to step into the position since December 2010.
"For the sake of presenting the office as functioning well, what is the first thing you do?" Motl asks. "Well, you clean up that backlog. Whether it is actually the most important civic discourse function of the office or not, it is the thing you have to do to restore the office as a ... well-functioning unit of state government."
Motl enters the position on the heels of an unprecedented electoral spending cycle in Montana, and at a time when high-rolling nonprofits are directing attention to disclosure laws. One of those nonprofits, Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, spent nearly $3.2 million opposing Sen. Jon Tester's reelection bid. Other nonprofits like the conservative American Tradition Partnership targeted numerous local and statewide candidates in Montana with attack mailers.
Motl intends to spend the next year and a half ensuring that, in statewide races at least, "everybody believes it was a true, fair fight."
"They were spending money without filing as a political committee and without disclosing," Motl says of some such groups. He adds that since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United has limited what regulators can do regarding contributions and expenditures, "the issue that is left that we need to work on is disclosure."