Campaign Complaint Docket Clear for First Time in 18 Years

The cleared complaint docket does not include four complaints related to the state's campaign contribution limits in 2012

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — The Montana commissioner of political practices’ backlog of complaints is clear for the first time in 18 years, and new allegations will be handled immediately with the goal of resolving them during the 2016 election cycle, the commissioner said Thursday.

Anybody can file a complaint alleging violations by candidates or committees, leaving the commissioner’s office to investigate whether the claims have merit. For years, the complaints coming in outpaced those that were resolved, creating the backlog.

Since 1998, the last time the complaint docket was cleared, the office has issued 286 decisions — with 144 of those coming since current commissioner Jonathan Motl took office in 2013.

Longtime Program Manager Mary Baker said the office made headway after hiring an investigator in 2007, bringing on an attorney in 2013 and with the appointment of Motl, who also is an attorney.

Catching up with the complaints will allow the office to focus on this election cycle, Motl said.

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

The cleared complaint docket does not include four complaints related to the state’s campaign contribution limits in 2012, including one filed by Gov. Steve Bullock’s former campaign manager, Kevin O’Brien, against Bullock’s Republican opponent that year, Rick Hill.

Those cases are on hold while a federal lawsuit challenging Montana’s contribution limits is pending, Motl said. The commissioner’s office has until September to act on the complaints because of a four-year statute of limitations, and Motl said he will seek U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell’s permission to do so before time is up.

Also pending is a March trial in a civil complaint against Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, which stems from a ruling Motl made in a complaint alleging nine Republican candidates took illegal corporate contributions and did not report them. Wittich has denied any wrongdoing.

Motl was appointed in 2013 by Bullock, a Democrat, and confirmed by the Republican-led state Senate last year. The commissioner’s office is nonpartisan.

Montana Republican Party spokesman Shane Scanlon said the GOP remains concerned that the structure of the office leaves too much power in the commissioner’s hands, which could lead to abuse when officeholders such as Motl display an affinity for one political party.

“That is not a system that can provide justice in the heat of battle and we have legitimate concerns about receiving even-handed treatment,” Scanlon said.

Democrats responded that Motl has acted independently as commissioner.

“His track record reflects balanced and fair decisions regardless of party or political beliefs,” spokesman Jason Pitt said.


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