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.