Montana Politics

Jonathan Motl: Doing the Commissioner’s Job

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I’ve read some terrible headlines from Montana newspapers in my day, but today’s story headlined “Political practices commissioner accused of using questionable tactics to get results” has to be one of the worst. More accurate headlines would include “Those accused of campaign finance violations cry bitterly about it” or “Commissioner Motl works to restore trust in Montana elections.”

Finally, after years of waiting, and countless hours of digging through documents, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices is cracking down on candidates who flouted the law—and those targeted and a disgruntled former COPP employee—are the only ones unhappy about it.

One thing becomes quite clear in the Dennison piece: some of the staff at COPP just weren’t terribly interested in doing their jobs. One “critic” mentioned in the Dennison piece is former COPP investigator Julie Steab, who said:

“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.”

What she’s describing sounds a lot like a Commissioner of Political Practices doing his job, a job that seems not to have been done very well at all with Ms. Steab investigating. Despite having insurmountable evidence of campaign coordination, evidence that she shared with PBS Frontline, the Commissioner’s office, with Steab “leading” the investigations, didn’t seem to be getting much done at all.

The story doesn’t mention that Ms. Steab was one of the people who accused former Commissioner Dave Gallik of improprieties, meaning that in a three year career at COPP, serving three commissioners, she’s gone after two of them. In the Gallik matter, she also bizarrely claimed in court that she was being followed “day and night” after her criticism of Dave Gallik became public. One has to wonder whether Commissioner Gallik wasn’t right back in 2012, when he suggested the COPP staffers were after him because they didn’t want to modernize the office.

In today’s piece, Steab also offered a peculiar defense of Western Tradition Partnership, saying:

“It looked like WTP was running a lot of these campaigns, but a lot of these candidates didn’t know about it,” she said.

It defies logic to believe that Montana legislative campaigns were being run by outside agents without the candidates’ knowledge—and the specific information provided by candidates to the ATP for mailers like the “wife letters” makes that clear. During her interview with PBS Frontline, Steab laid out specific examples of coordination between Western Tradition Partnership and Montana legislative candidates

And back in 2012, Ms. Steab complained about the backlog of cases before the COPP, suggesting a “staff attorney” would help clear their casework.

In short, suggesting that Ms. Steab is some kind of credible, independent critics of Commissioner Motl requires a significant stretch.

Another critic in the piece is Helena attorney James Brown, who said:

“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.

Bizarrely, the piece doesn’t mention that Brown was the attorney for American Tradition Partnership. In other words, Brown is defending at least one legislator against charges that the legislator coordinated with Brown’s former client, American Tradition Partnership. But there is no coordination between the groups.

The bottom line is pretty clear: American Tradition Partnership was nothing more than a sleazy, law-breaking conservative Republican front group that coordinated with Montana legislative candidates and is now leaving them behind to face the consequences for their collective misdeeds.

It’s natural that those who are finally being held accountable, like Scott Sales and Art Wittich, are angry that the Commissioner’s office is finally vigorously pursuing them, but it’s disappointing to see a former COPP employee so clearly putting partisanship ahead of her job—and the truth.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is a eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

17 Comments

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  • Julie, Julie, JULIE! Boy was I wrong! I accused you before of being a nut cutter! Well, was I wrong. You’re not a nut cutter, you’re a wacko PUBBIE PLANT! (just as I suspected!) Geez, how do we get rid of these little nut cutters, OOPS!, I mean wacko Pube plants! Looks as if I was right all along. They’s some crazies workin’ in that office! Motl’s integrity is above reproach. ANY one familiar with Montana politics knows that. And the Billings Gazoo needs to stop giving these little pissant low level entry level nut cutters, OOPS!, I mean Teatard plants, an article every time they get heart burn over the commissioner doing his job! Molt is absolutely right. Our democracy is under attack by the corporate fascist bastards, and the peons in the office need to STFU and allow the REAL head of that office to do his job! Give these crazies there walking papers and an application at McDonalds, for that is where their Peter Principle directs them!

    • p.s. Dave Gallik has been vindicated! BIG time! And so have I. Who called it? ME, that’s who!

        • Who can forget THIS classic line from “the ladies”? Pretty much says it all.

          “But Baker, along with fel­low staff members Julie Steab, Kym Trujillo, and Karen Musgrave, told the Tribune their complaints against Gallik stem from the fact he isn’t doing the job he was appointed to do and is instead focusing much of his time and energy on his private practice.”

          Well, now we have a commish who IS doing his job quite well, and the ladies STILL have their knickers in knots! Geez, some people you just can’t please! Me THINKS, judging from the pleasant countenances displayed in the photo, these ladies would be much better suited for employment as Walmart greeters! Welcome to Walmart, now GET THE HELL OUT! Jus’ sayin’.

  • Jumpin’ sweet Jesus! There comes a time, yes there comes a time, when NUTHIN’ will save Murca but a big dooky! And we’re there! NOW is the time for all good dookies out there to come to the aid of their country and the BIG dooky hisself, the Duke! So, don’t laff. Take the dooky seriously! The Teabrains already have! In fact, their entire agenda is pretty much dooky! Take a dooky on Murca!

    http://polymontana.com/duke-asks-gen-paul-vallely-guides-tea-party/#more-20447

  • I think the amounts raised by a lot of legislative candidates are insulting. Some people spend more to get elected than many people they’re representing are making in a year.

    Outside organizations can campaign on behalf of a candidate, but if the candidate has knowledge of it then it’s a no-no.

    I don’t like seeing stories in the paper about candidates and their campaign finances. They’re nearly always bad and they give people a bad opinion of legislators.

    I wonder how many have done questionable things with their finances and haven’t been caught yet. I’m sure many are frustrated with the individual cap of $170 but that just means you have to get out and work to get that money.

    Perhaps some just don’t want to meet with a lot of people they’re representing. In that case getting outside groups to do the job for you seems like a good idea I guess.

    I hope voters will decide otherwise and not send many of these people to Helena.

    I’m trying to raise money for my campaign and that means sending out letters, making phone calls to people in my district, and knocking on doors. It’s tough, but that’s what you sign up for.

    • I went through all of that back in 1996 – the fund raising letters and door-knocking and phone calls. A couple of things I learned in running that may interest you, though you seem the type to already know this stuff (I learned the hard way):

      Every firm stand that you take on a controversial issue alienates perhaps half of your potential voters.

      NRA are assholes, but they can break your back. They have immense power.

      Every time you leave a door step, the resident should have the feeling that you and s/he were in agreement on the issues.

      People do not keep up on issues or politics – it’s quite a wasteland. Keep it very simple – three words tops, like “Hope and Change,” saying nothing, gets it done. Don’t put them on the spot, asking them their views on specific issues, as it embarrasses them. Just ask what’s troubling them, and when they say taxes are too high, agree and move on. Just say your name three times.

      And very good luck. We need people like you in office. Seriously.

  • RIP, Pete. Now, you can do another duet with Woody. You did your duty well.

    • When the left still had their cojones. Can’t we all just be civil? Well, no, we can’t, not when one side is fascist!

    • Indeed, God Bless Pete Seeger, a true American hero and Icon, not those teabag
      loons who couldn’t care about the working poor, oppressed and all those who
      hope.

  • No, Larry, Gallik is not vindicated. He was treasurer (in name only) of Schweitzer’s DGA dark money PAC before Shyster hired him to be the campaign finance COPP. Fox in the henhouse kind of thing.
    The DGA pacs were actually administered out of a DC law firm that specializes in helping dark money donors keep things dark without going to jail. But Frontline will never report that and I doubt Don will make it an issue, either.

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