HELENA — As Montana’s new political practices commissioner, attorney Jonathan Motl is cranking out decisions at a red-hot pace and taking on what he sees as illegal campaign activity by “dark money” groups and their favored candidates.
But Motl’s aggressive stance is raising eyebrows among supporters and critics alike, the latter of whom are calling him everything from a “partisan hack” to a misguided crusader on a “witch hunt.”
A former investigator in his office and attorneys representing his targets also say Motl is using questionable tactics, such as refiling old complaints that had been dismissed and directing investigations to get the results he wants.
“He targeted specific candidates and he just took over the investigations, directed everything I did, from day one,” said Julie Steab, who quit as an office investigator last fall after three years on the job. “Every commissioner I worked for before … stayed out of investigations, and now he’s directing them.”
Motl, 65, a Helena attorney with a long background in campaign law, concedes that he’s different from previous commissioners, in that he’s often able to investigate, analyze and write opinions himself.
Yet he said his only agenda is to lay down the campaign rules and standards for future candidates — particularly when it comes to dealing with shadowy groups that have inserted themselves into Montana campaigns by financing aggressive direct-mail efforts attacking certain candidates and benefiting
Complaints have been filed against these groups and his office is required by law to investigate where they lead, even if that means discovering new violations that weren’t necessarily identified in the original complaint, he said.
“If I have an agenda, it’s to serve the people of Montana by (enforcing the law) … and to make candidate elections fair to the candidates,” he said in an interview Friday.
Since his appointment last May by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, Motl has churned out 42 decisions on pending complaints, dramatically reducing the office’s backlog of cases.
Among those are several significant cases involving Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) and its affiliates, tabbed by critics as dark-money political groups that often don’t reveal their spending or financial supporters.
In the past three Montana elections, these groups have mailed campaign material attacking Democrats and some Republicans, blasting the latter as “too liberal” or allied with liberal causes.
Since October, Motl has filed complaints or made decisions in cases naming nine candidates — all Republicans — whom he says accepted or appeared to accept illegal contributions from WTP or its affiliates and illegally coordinated their campaigns with the groups.
On Friday, Motl filed a complaint in court that asked a judge to consider removing from office Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, for violating campaign laws in connection with his alleged coordination with WTP and other groups.
Miller has denied any wrongdoing, but declined to elaborate until he talked to an attorney.
Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, the target of another complaint filed Friday by Motl, said Motl’s predecessor, Jim Murry, had examined similar charges against him related to a 2010 county commission race and dismissed them last year.
“I don’t know why he’s reopening one where a Democratic commissioner said there is nothing there,” Sales said. “I think it’s a witch hunt this guy is on.”
Motl’s argument in most of these cases is that while the candidates may have bought some services from these groups, such as direct-mail letters promoting their candidacy, they clearly paid much less than the services were worth, and therefore accepted illegal contributions that should have been reported.
Sales said the argument is absurd.
“How would a guy like me even know that?” he said. “I’m a one-horse show on these little campaigns. I don’t have a treasurer, I don’t have people who put up signs for me. I just do it all myself.”
Sales and others also have said Motl, appointed by a Democrat, is targeting Republicans and conservatives, trying to scare them away from getting involved.
Motl said he makes no decisions based on someone’s political party, and noted that in all of the WTP cases, the original complaint was filed by a Republican, who felt they’d been unfairly smeared by or on behalf of their GOP primary opponent.
In fact, Motl’s biggest cheerleaders are Republicans who filed these complaints.
John Ward, a former state representative from Helena, lost a 2008 Republican primary race after he was attacked by a spate of mailers sponsored by groups linked to WTP.
He filed a complaint with the political practices office in June 2010, and Motl last year asked Ward if he could expand it to file allegations against Miller, who defeated Ward in 2008 and then defeated another Republican, Joe Dooling, in the 2010 primary. Dooling also was the target of attack mail from WTP-affiliated groups.
Ward said last week Miller can’t deny involvement with the groups, especially when they showed up on his behalf a second time, and that he’s glad Motl is connecting the dots and cracking down on “the willingness of these amoral or immoral politicians to participate in illegal activities.”
“I believe (Motl) is a thorough professional doing the job he’s paid to do,” Ward said.
Former state Rep. John Esp, a Big Timber Republican who filed a complaint over attacks he faced from some of the same groups in a 2010 primary, said he agreed to have his complaint expanded by Motl because he wants “to figure out what the rules are so everybody can play by them.”
Yet Motl’s critics question whether he’s going too far, using the office to pursue small-time candidates who honestly didn’t know the agenda of WTP and its affiliates and forcing them to spend money to hire attorneys to defend themselves.
“What Motl has done is go beyond the allegations and the face of the complaint, and make findings on alleged violations that you were never accused of in the first instance and never had a chance to respond to,” said James Brown, a Helena lawyer representing at least one of the targets of the WTP-related complaints.
Steab, the former investigator for the office, said she told Motl that her investigation showed some of the candidates did not coordinate with WTP, but that Motl wouldn’t listen.
“It looked like WTP was running a lot of these campaigns, but a lot of these candidates didn’t know about it,” she said.
Motl said he’s spent many hours combing through WTP-related documents the office acquired before he arrived – documents from Colorado that showed up mysteriously at the Helena office in 2011 and were later seized by the FBI – and that he’s pieced together evidence he believes shows a strong link between the groups and the candidates.
All of those findings are public documents, for anyone to examine – and neither the groups nor the candidates have credibly rebutted the charges, he said.
“There are sufficient facts based on objective evidence to show there was a relationship between the candidate and these groups,” he said.