HELENA — The Montana commissioner of political practices plans to dismiss an ethics complaint filed by a Republican lawmaker against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over the governor’s use of the state plane, an attorney for the commissioner said Friday.
Assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest disclosed the pending decision in the confidential case during a hearing in federal court.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl confirmed that he plans to issue a decision Monday in the complaint filed by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, but declined to say what the decision will be.
“I don’t say what I’m going to do until I do it,” Motl said.
Tschida’s complaint alleges Bullock and Commerce Director Meg O’Leary misused the state plane by flying to a Paul McCartney concert in 2014. It also alleges that Bullock and O’Leary accepted an illegal gift by accepting an invitation to sit in University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s box at the stadium where the concert was held.
Bullock has denied any wrongdoing and said he was on state business. He has partially reimbursed the state for past uses of the state plane when he scheduled campaign events alongside official business.
Tschida sent a letter to other lawmakers about the ethics complaint a week before voters decided the governor’s race between Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte. Tschida then sued Motl for saying that the lawmaker violated the confidentiality requirements regulating ethics complaints, which amounts to a criminal charge of official misconduct.
Tschida alleges in his lawsuit the confidentiality requirements regulating ethics complaints is a violation of his free-speech rights, and that Motl’s threat of prosecution has silenced him and prevented him from speaking about legislative business with other lawmakers.
He is asking U.S. District Judge Brian Morris to block Motl from carrying out his threat of prosecution and to strike down the confidentiality provision.
“The First Amendment doesn’t require permission of the government for citizens to speak,” said Matthew Monforton, an attorney for Tschida.
Motl’s imminent rejection of Tschida’s allegations against Bullock was central to Segrest’s argument in court Friday. Segrest told Morris that a temporary restraining order is unnecessary because once Motl dismisses the complaint next week, Tschida can talk about it to whomever he wants.
“It’s going to be dismissed and therefore public under this statute,” Segrest said.
Monforton urged the judge to issue an order blocking Motl from prosecuting the lawmaker, anyway. Tschida is concerned that Motl would still go after him for the alleged disclosure violations that already occurred, Monforton said.
Morris did not make an immediate decision. Instead, he ordered another hearing on Dec. 9 to hear testimony from Motl and Tschida.
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