Moderate Republicans Deliver Another Victory for Bullock on COPP Nomination

Continuing  a trend that has plagued more conservative Republicans in the waning days of this year’s Montana state legislative session, so-called “responsible Republicans” once again joined with Democrats last week to hand Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock another major victory.

Five Republicans joined with 21 Democrats to “blast” controversial Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl’s nomination out of the Senate Administration Committee where it had been tabled and was expected to die. Notable Republicans casting votes for Motl over intense opposition within their own party included Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip), Taylor Brown (R-Huntley), Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell), Llew Jones (R-Conrad), Ed Buttrey (R-Great Falls), John Brenden (R-Scobey), and Pat Connell (R-Hamilton).

Motl has been the subject of intense debate since he was first nominated in 2013 after former Commissioner of Political Practices, Dave Gallik, resigned amid scandal when he was accused of misconduct by Office of Political Practices staffers. Motl was allowed to take office as a recess appointment until the end of the 2015 legislative session.

In 2013 Media Trackers documented Motl’s decades of left-wing political activism with the campaign finance reform groups Common Cause and Stand With Montanans. Motl has also been cited twice by former Montana COPP’s for violations of state campaign law during ballot initiative campaigns:  the 2002 case of Griffin v. MontPIRG and the 2012 case of Harrington v. 400% is Enough.

Republicans have often accused Motl of political bias and targeting conservative candidates in the course of his duties and much of the opposition at legislative hearings last week centered on that perceived bias.

Motl’s most high profile and controversial rulings involve the dark money group Western Tradition Partnership (WTP). Motl ruled in several cases that a number of conservative candidates coordinated with WTP because they didn’t pay enough — in Motl’s opinion — for direct mailing services to a Livingston based direct mail firm that was owned by the wife of a WTP staffer. Motl claimed that this amounted to an “in-kind” corporate contribution from WTP.

Motl even took the unprecedented step of recommending that two of the candidates currently in office — Republican State Reps. Art Wittich and Mike Miller — be removed from office.

In January of 2014, a former COPP employee Julie Steab told Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers that Motl was “directing investigations to get the results he wants.”

In-fact, emotions ran so high during hearings over charges of Motl’s bias and the use of the COPP position for activist purposes, that conservative Republican Senator Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) publically called him a “tyrant” and stated that if he was confirmed she might not even choose to run for reelection next cycle. Despite the objections, Motl was confirmed on a 29-21 vote.

The Motl confirmation is but the latest example of the self-styled “Responsible Republicans” giving Democrats de-facto control over the legislative session despite large majorities in both chambers for Republicans. Moderates have also sided with Governor Bullock and Democrats to ram through Obamacare mandated Medicaid expansion, pass the controversial Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes Water Compact, and push through the Governor’s signature campaign finance reforms; a bill that was bitterly opposed by House Republican leadership.

The controversy generated by these Republican defections highlights the bitterness of the fights over partisan topics which took place during this legislative session. Rep. Wittich recently characterized the battles as “throwing out the rules” and “the law of the jungle.”