Who Investigates the Investigator?

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The integrity of a confiscated computer, department “wish lists” and questions about who polices the political police were topics that arose Friday as a state committee discussed the Commissioner of Political Practices (CPP) office and possible changes to be made.

And it was revealed how this issue has become a political hot potato, with several state agencies turning down requests to take ownership of confiscated materials.

The discussion by the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee came in the wake of the Jan. 18 resignation of David Gallik, who left office soon after staff accused him of doing work for his private law practice on state time. Gallik has denied the accusations. Gallik attended Friday’s meeting, but did not speak to the committee on this topic.

State Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, told the SAVA panel he had learned the former commissioner’s computer had been removed from his office and that files may have been deleted. His said the CPP office had its request denied to have the computer returned. He said he would request the governor’s office order the return the computer. House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, sat with Peterson, but did not address the panel on this topic.

Paula Stoll, the state administrator of Human Resources, told the committee it was she who had the computer removed “as a matter of protocol,” adding that it’s a priority to preserve the public record. She said her problem was that now that she has the computer, what does she do with it.

She said the governor’s office, the attorney general and the Legislative Audit Division each told her they do not want the information.

David Niss, staff attorney for the SAVA committee, suggested she contact the Lewis and Clark county attorney’s office. Earlier he had suggested the SAVA committee consider requesting the Legislature make changes to state statutes that would provide clearer definitions as to what the commissioner could and could not do while in office.

By law, the governor has 30 days to replace the commissioner. A committee of legislative minority and majority leaders will meet Thursday to discuss candidates.

Mary Baker, CPP program supervisor, told the committee election season is under way and the office is busy with candidate filings. She said the office is preparing to have “campaign school” trainings Feb. 6-10 throughout the state.
Julie Steab, CPP investigator, said there are 37 complaints (some that go back to 2008) on the office’s docket – four of them are ethics allegations which are forwarded to a hearing examiner. Of the remaining 33, 21 are complete, four investigations are in progress and eight investigations are pending.

Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, said people are frustrated by the length of time it takes the CPP to resolve complaints. He asked Baker what it would take for the office to become better referees of campaigns.

Baker said adding a staff attorney dedicated to the CPP office would help.
While there was some talk to changes in statutes, Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, talked of something bigger.

He suggested a “larger reorganization” and look at what is being done in other states. He said in other states the Secretary of State’s office does many of the duties done by the CPP. He said it would provide a clearer management and oversight structure.

“It may be worth a larger overhaul to the office entirely,” Van Dyk said.
Helena attorney Jim Brown, who told the committee he has represented the Montana State Republican Party and dealt frequently with the CPP, offered several suggestions for “reforming” the Political Practices office.

“I saw this problem coming several years ago,” he said.

His suggestions included not allowing the governor to select a candidate not on a list provided by the state Legislature. “This process allows for the governor, regardless of the governor’s political affiliation, to unilaterally select a person for this state position without any real input from the public or elected officials.”

In another suggestion, Brown states: “As far as I know, Montana is the only state of the union that allows a partisan governor to directly select the state’s top political cop.”

He said he thought Baker’s suggestion of “in-house” counsel for the CPP to be a good idea.

The SAVA committee decided to continue the discussion about the CPP at its April meeting, and maybe look at how CPPs are handled in other states or possibly look at an overhaul of the Montana office.