By Phil Drake | Montana Watchdog
HELENA — The commissioner of political practices holds great authority, investigating allegations of election and campaign finance malfeasance, an inherently political position.
It is even more politically charged because the governor appoints the commissioner, resulting in previous officeholders facing repeated claims of partisanship, cronyism and pokey resolution of complaints.
After years of this office being embroiled in controversy and the recent sudden resignation of the previous commissioner, lawmakers have had enough and want to reevaluate the commissioner’s responsibilities.
But changing this position could be a daunting task, a University of Montana professor told Montana Watchdog.
“One of the problems with reforms is that you try to take politics out of politics, and it’s pretty hard to do,” James Lopach, a political science professor, said in a telephone interview, adding that certain hot button issues, such as voting district reapportionment, which the commissioner may address are highly political.
“It’s hard to find a philosopher king who is knowledgeable but completely disinterested,” he said.
The State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee has drafted LCsa01, which wants a committee to study the way in which the commissioner is appointed, the Political Practice Office‘s duties and its authority, including options for “more immediate consequences for violating campaign laws.”
The commissioner’s responsibilities include monitoring and investigating complaints regarding campaign practices, campaign financial disclosure, lobbying, and business interest disclosure of state elected officials, candidates and state department directors.
LCsa02, the other bill SAVA is drafting, outlines procedures when complaints are made against the commissioner and prohibits the commissioner from doing private business during office hours.
Both proposals are expected to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session with the study expected to be presented to lawmakers during the 2015 session.
The fate of the commissioner’s position was brought into question in January, shortly after Political Practices Commissioner David Gallik resigned amid allegations from his staff that he was doing private business on state time.
Gallik denied the claims, saying his staff resisted changes he wanted to make, such as electronic filing, that would allow the office to be more efficient.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer replaced Gallik in February with Jim Murry, who worked as a treasurer on his political campaigns. Schweitzer told Murry that the 2013 Legislature might change the Political Practices Office or have its duties assigned to another office.
Helena attorney Jim Brown, who has represented the Montana Republican Party, told the SAVA committee shortly after Gallik resigned that the position is flawed by allowing the commissioner to be the judge, jury and executioner regarding the credibility of complaints.
“As far as I know, Montana is the only state (in) the union that allows a partisan governor to directly select the state’s top political cop,” he wrote in comments he submitted to committee members. “This is just an inherent conflict on its face.”
Brown had accused Gallik, a former Democratic legislator, of ruling on a case involving Attorney General Steve Bullock. Brown said Gallik, who had donated to Bullock’s campaign, should have recused himself.
He also said told SAVA that the office had some complaints that were more than 4 years old. In a January memo to SAVA, he said complaints should be resolved within a year.
A review Friday by Montana Watchdog shows the oldest of the 31 unaddressed complaints now go back to June 7, 2010.
“This extraordinary length of time to resolve a complaint not only looks bad, because it is bad, but also is prejudicial to the complaining party and the party complained against,” said Brown.
Murry and Mary Baker, a program supervisor in the Political Practices Office, have said getting an in-house attorney would help. The office now hires outside legal assistance. Murry said that last year the office spent $86,000 for legal assistance, and an in-house attorney “would help speed up the process.”
The commissioner is appointed for a six-year term by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The current term ends Dec. 30, 2016, and the job pays $57,689 annually.
The position was created in 1975 and was first called the commissioner of campaign finances and practices. At first, the commissioner was appointed by the House speaker, Senate president and minority leaders of both houses, according to a recent briefing prepared by Megan Moore, research analyst with the Legislative Services Division. In 1979, the Legislature gave the governor the authority to appoint a commissioner.
While in office, the commissioner cannot have an occupation that interferes with the office, participate in a campaign and contribute or attend a fund-raising event for a candidate. The commissioner can be removed by the governor or impeached by a county attorney.
The office has changed over the years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was charged with election financing, lobbying and business disclosures. In the mid-1990s, the office was tasked with overseeing the ethical standards of conduct for legislators, public officers and state employees.
Lopach, the UM professor, said he believes the public does not have a lot of confidence in the Political Practices Office, because it has “that appearance of being tainted by politics.”
He said a three-person commission might be good.
“The goal would be to get a body seen as more independent, more expert, more legitimate and not subject to partisan complaints,” he said. “We’d have to pay for it and the Legislature always seems to balk at paying for quality.”
Contact Phil Drake at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 442-4561.