New Boss to Sort ‘Dark Money’ in Montana Politics

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — New commissioner of political practices Jonathan Motl said he expects to start issuing decisions soon on a list of complaints dealing with disclosure of money in politics.

The issue surrounding so-called dark money has taken greater significance since a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that freed up campaign spending and ultimately was used to strike Montana’s century-old citizen’s initiative banning some corporate contributions.

Court battles continue over the state’s contribution limits, the requirements for disclosure and other related issues. It has resulted in more than half-a-dozen complaints that ask the commissioner of political practices to sort out various details dealing with disclosure of spending.

Motl took over earlier this month, leading an office that faces a backlog of cases after suffering partisan wrangling and high turnover. He will complete the final three years of a six-year term left vacant after three Democratic appointees did not complete confirmation through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Motl, appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, said he believes a career spent with an interest in campaign finance related issues and working with a group that seeks transparency in government has prepared him for the new position.

The decisions, given the recent court rulings on the constitutional debate over free speech, will help shape campaign finance policy on a highly contested area of law surrounding third-party groups. Some of those groups are organized as educational nonprofits.

This past Legislature was highly divided over plans to create more rules aimed at forcing more disclosure on campaign spending and ultimately failed to pass any new laws on the matter.

Motl said court decisions and past precedent from the commissioner’s office can still be used to shed light on the rules. He said, generally, the state requires disclosure of money spent to influence elections — and he intends to enforce it.

“When you are talking about speech, any of these groups or corporate entities can speak all they want. All we are talking about here is disclosing who is speaking,” Motl said. “I think that is the policy of Montana, and it benefits the public in the end. Everyone benefits from a political debate that is open, honest and full.”

The commissioner issued his first three decisions last week, dealing with complaints over other issues like deadlines. The office still has 51 pending complaints to work through.

Motl said he will be paying close attention to precedent as he renders decisions in order to ensure they withstand scrutiny.

Republicans who opposed new regulations on the matter and have shot down past nominees for the post are leery over whether they will be treated fairly.

State Sen. Art Wittich, a Bozeman lawyer, said he believes there is a tradition of anonymity in politics dating back to the Federalist Papers that should be respected. He argued established rules can be constructed to protect incumbents.

Motl “should, and I hope he does, approach it from a legal standpoint and not a political standpoint,” Wittich said.

Wittich said his biggest concern is that conservative and liberal groups are treated equally by Motl, who was appointed amid reservations from Republicans.

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