Witch Hunter? Or Not?

By Beacon Staff

Montana’s stupid campaign finance laws are a pet peeve of mine, and should be one of yours.

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a column (Nader’s Montana Raiders) about two rather clever political operatives, Jonathan Motl of Helena and C.B. Pearson of Missoula, who have spent decades using ballot initiatives to game Montana’s campaign finance system.

You might be interested to know that Mr. Motl is now a state of Montana employee as our commissioner of political practices. Late last spring, Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Motl to replace short-timer Jim Murry, a retired Montana AFL-CIO big wheel who spent a year as commissioner, but chose not to seek confirmation by the state Senate.

Murry had replaced Dave Gallik, a Brian Schweitzer appointee who, after a six-month run, was basically hounded out of office for moonlighting on state time. Then, about 18 months later, Fox News reported before and during his appointment by then-governor Brian Schweitzer, Gallik had been treasurer for one of two secret Democratic Governors’ Association federal Political Action Committees. In short, both were “dark money” groups, which in reality were run not by Gallik, but by a Washington, D.C. law firm specializing in the federal PAC shell game.

Anyway, with Mr. Murry leaving, 11 Montanans applied to be top COPP. Five, including Mr. Motl, were passed to Gov. Bullock by a bipartisan review panel.

Since taking office June 10, Mr. Motl has been rather busy, moving over 40 cases from investigation to conclusion/prosecution. Many of Motl’s decisions have a common thread: They concern complaints against candidates that were “helped” by an anonymously funded, conservative political entity known as Western Tradition Partnership-then-American Tradition Partnership, or WTP/ATP, which was active in Montana and Colorado.

The plaintiffs tend to be either Democrats, or “moderate” Republicans, while the defendants are almost all members of the “conservative” faction of Montana’s GOP.

How could Motl hit the ground running so fast? Well, as I wrote last year, Motl has had access to scads of private WTP/ATP documents that “mysteriously” (as Lee reporter Mike Dennison puts it) showed up at the COPP offices.

But there’s no mystery. Both ProPublica and Frontline reported last fall the papers had been in a car stolen from Christian LeFer, whose business produced many of WTP/ATP’s printed materials. The papers were found in a Denver-area meth house by a convicted felon. Said felon “reached out” to a certain Colorado Democratic state senator who helped the papers find their way to the COPP office. They were initially received by COPP staff investigator Julie Steab in Helena in March 2011, before either Gallik or Murry were commissioners.

The cool part? Last week it was revealed that Ms. Steab is no longer with COPP. Steab told reporter Dennison she quit because Motl “targeted specific candidates and he just took over the investigations, directed everything I did, from day one.”


I have the funny feeling that Mr. Motl, one of Montana’s best progressive strategic political minds, applied for the commissioner job specifically to focus on the WTP/ATP cases and extract the maximum political impact from same.

After all, both the existence of these WTP/ATP papers and the long docket of complaints against WTP/ATP were public knowledge, especially to political junkies, prior to his application.

Best of all, the last major collaboration by Motl with his long-time colleague C.B. Pearson was 2012’s I-166, the “no corporate personhood” ballot initiative spawned in the wake of ATP’s U.S. Supreme Court case that voided some of Montana’s campaign finance rules – rules Motl and Pearson had spent years carefully erecting.

So, is Commissioner Motl enforcing the laws “in a fair and impartial manner” as he should, or engaging in what others (mostly conservatives caught in the WTP/ATP dragnet) call a “witch hunt?”

I don’t know yet. A number of other political complaints not involving WTP/ATP are yet to be resolved by Mr. Motl’s promised deadline of March 31. Trust me, when those cases are ruled upon, then everyone will know whether or not Mr. Motl is a witch hunter.

Let’s hope he isn’t.

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