Job well done 

Motl clears political complaint backlog before Wittich trial

Jonathan Motl is doing what few of his predecessors could: his job. Last week, The Associated Press reported the backlog of complaints to the Montana Commission of Political Practices was clear for the first time in 18 years. For the rest of 2016, the commissioner hopes to answer all complaints about improper political practices before the November election.

"Montanans should feel assured that in 2016 elections, when they file a campaign practice complaint, it will be dealt with in real time," Motl said. "And by real time, I mean that it will be handled, resolved and decided in the election period."

That's a thrilling promise. It is made more thrilling by the fact that no one has kept it for almost two decades.

The commissioner's office has a fraught history. There have been 11 commissioners since the position was created in 1975—an oddly high number, considering they are appointed to six-year terms. Since Gordon Higgins took office in 2004 and resigned in 2006, no commissioner of political practices has completed a whole term.

We've had six commissioners in 10 years. That may be because the governor appoints them but the Senate approves them. While Democrats have held the governor's office since 2005, Republicans have controlled the Senate since 2009. As the commissioner of political practices became a political football, the backlog of complaints grew accordingly.

Motl changed that. For the first time in 18 years, he has given his office meaningful power to protect voters by making candidates who break election laws vulnerable to punishment before Election Day. In light of this achievement, the argument that he is biased rings false.

Mostly, that argument against Motl has come from Art Wittich. The representative from Bozeman is the object of a political practices lawsuit alleging he illegally failed to report in-kind contributions and illegally coordinated with conservative nonprofits during the 2010 campaign.

Wittich insists he is the victim of a politically motivated smear. In January, he got a boost from an unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal arguing that Motl has used his office to persecute conservatives. It notes that "since taking office, Mr. Motl has gone after conservative groups or parties, with suits against nine conservative groups in 2014."

That's true. But Motl filed a total of 23 suits that year, in the process of resolving all 86 complaints submitted to his office. If he went after Republicans, he did it in the process of going after everybody else.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen

The Journal also claims Motl "has not produced any evidence" that Wittich coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership. Presumably he will produce that evidence during the trial, but until then we can speculate. I quote the same editorial, a few paragraphs down:

"After the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, then Attorney General Scott [sic] Bullock tried to claim that Montana could continue to limit corporate expenditures. He was smacked down by the Justices in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock; Mr. Wittich's law firm brought that case."

Western Tradition Partnership changed its name to American Tradition Partnership in 2009. Although the Wall Street Journal has yet to see evidence that Wittich coordinated with Western Tradition Partnership, his firm did represent them in a campaign finance lawsuit during the 2010 campaign.

Three weeks after the Wall Street Journal published its editorial, Reason.com ran its own piece casting Wittich as a victim of political persecution. "Montana Commission on Political Practices Targets Ideological Opponents," the headline read.

The piece was by author Will Swaim and is thus far his only contribution to Reason. Swaim is an editor at Watchdog.org, a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. In 2011 for instance, the Franklin Center received 95 percent of its funding from two affiliated charities: Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund. The funds promise their donors anonymity and the guarantee their money won't be given to liberal causes.

Besides bankrolling the Franklin Center, Donors Trust has also given to the legal defense foundation of National Right to Work—one of the organizations with which Wittich is accused of illegally coordinating in 2010. Whether he carried water for them is in dispute until March, but they sure appear to be taking care of him now.

That's why we need a commissioner of political practices, and that's why Motl is a good one. People keep accusing him of investigating complaints unequally. He has disproved that by resolving every single one.

Every one but five, that is. Four of them relate to a 2012 lawsuit over Montana's campaign contribution limits that is currently working its way through federal court. The fifth is Motl v. Wittich. I can't wait to see how that one comes out.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and the donor-editorial complex at combatblog.net.

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