Relying on some truly questionable sourcing and a sloppy conflation of unrelated issues, a truly odd story on the front page of the Independent Record today seems to suggest that the Bullock Administration improperly influenced the rules making process following the Legislature’s passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which was designed to require additional reporting and disclosure of campaign activity in the three months before the election.
It’s a story badly in need of an editor—and a reporter more familiar with the players in Montana politics.
The worst part of the story is simply that in its effort to manufacture a controversy about the role of the governor’s office, it obscures the fact that the Republican-dominated Legislature approved the rules the story characterizes as “controversial” and “burdensome,” burying that information at the bottom of the story, without even noting that the changes were approved by a Republican-led Legislature.
It’s hard to make the case that the Democratic governor’s office improperly influenced a rules-making process that a Republican Legislature approved in the end. It’s even more bizarre to suggest, as the story does, that Governor Bullock’s office should not have been involved in the rule-making process, given his role at the center of developing the legislation.
The heart of the story’s errors concerns Commissioner Jonathan Motl. The Independent Record characterized concern about his work like this:
Finalization of the rules also came amid growing criticism aimed at Motl, a former nonprofit lobbyist and labor leader who critics have called a “partisan hack” engaged in a “witch hunt” aimed at Republican office seekers.
Given the questions raised about Motl’s motives, multiple lobbyists and nonprofit political advocates contacted by the Independent Record said they were concerned by emails detailing Bullock staffers’ involvement in last year’s protracted rule-making process, though none said they were surprised.
It’s the worst kind of circular reporting, with the same critics who have lodged attacks against Motl offering both the justification for the criticism and then the criticism of his work. A fairer characterization would be to have written that “the same conservative hacks and front groups who are angry that Motl is enforcing campaign finance laws in Montana are now angry that the DISCLOSE Act will give him more tools to ensure fair elections.” It’s no secret that Montana Republicans and their corporate front groups are enraged that Motl is enforcing campaign laws, but to use their unsourced criticism as a justification for more quotes from the very same people isn’t reporting; it’s character assassination and innuendo.
It’s an unfair attack against Motl, who has cleared the docket at COPP for the first time in recent memory, and ignores that many of the complaints lodged against Republican officeholders were lodged by fellow Republicans. The story doesn’t even source the claim that Motl is a “partisan hack,” an unfair complaint lodged by one of the Republicans, Art Wittich, whose involvement in illegal campaign coordination seems certain at this point.
And then let’s get to the sourcing of the story. Despite referring to “multiple lobbyists and nonprofit political advocates,” the story quotes two critics, Eric Wang and Brent Mead, both who led or work for conservative front groups opposed to the DISCLOSE Act.
Eric Wang is an especially troubling source. Though the story notes, before a particularly inflammatory and unsupported quote, that he is a fellow at the “right-leaning Center for Competitive Politics,” it doesn’t mention what the Center for Competitive Politics is solely committed to: the complete deregulation of U.S. elections. As Sourcewatch notes, it is “against the McCain-Feingold act, the Disclose Act, the Fairness Doctrine, and [is] in favor of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations to spend money to promote or oppose candidates in elections.” Noting that Wang works for a conservative group is hardly sufficient in this story, which should have noted the priorities of the organization he represents.
And the neither Wang nor the rest of the story offer any factual support for Wang’s absurd claim that Governor Bullock and/or Commissioner Motl were breaking the law.
The second source was Brent Mead from the Montana Policy Institute. You might remember Mead from his work at the Montana Growth Network, which heavily influenced the 2012 Supreme Court election in Montana. The story didn’t mention that, his organization’s involvement with the Koch Brothers, or even the fact that Mead testified repeatedly against the DISCLOSE Act, and was involved in the rule making process himself, testifying at hearings about the process.
So, despite the suggestion of wrongdoing in the story, that’s all we have: some concerns about the nature of the rules for the DISCLOSE Act, which have proven themselves acceptable to both Republican legislators and the Democratic Governor’s office, and some unsupported, partisan attacks from people who make their living attacking campaign finance regulation. That’s not only not a front page story; it’s not a story at all.