- Associated Press - Monday, May 15, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Former legislator Jeff Mangan took over Monday as Montana’s enforcer of campaign, ethics and lobbying laws, succeeding Jonathan Motl’s turbulent tenure in which Motl and his staff prosecuted campaign corruption in the 2010 Republican primaries and re-wrote state campaign finance rules.

Mangan, who served in the Montana Legislature as a Democrat from Great Falls from 1999 to 2006, was sworn in Monday to a six-year term as commissioner of political practices. In an interview last week, he said he will begin work immediately after spending time getting up to speed on pending litigation and campaign complaints.

“I’ve reviewed all of them,” he said. “I’ll start writing decisions on Monday.”

The commissioner’s office is a political hot seat by nature of its role as the independent overseer of the campaign activities of the state elected officials. Allegations of partisan bias tend to dog the commissioner, who is appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Senate.

As a result, the commissioner’s office has seen frequent turnover - Mangan will be the fifth person to hold the office since Dennis Unsworth in 2010, and he is the first in that time to be confirmed to a full six-year term.

Motl survived the longest of the rest, four years, but his tenure has only increased Republican accusations of partisanship. That’s mainly because of the civil lawsuits Motl filed against nine Republican candidates in the 2010 elections alleging they received illegal contributions in the form of campaign aid provided by corporations connected to the anti-labor union National Right to Work Committee.

Most of those cases were settled out of court, though one resulted in a highly publicized trial of a sitting lawmaker last year, former Rep. Art Wittich. A jury found Wittich took illegal corporate contributions and was ordered to pay a $68,000 fine.

Wittich, who lost his re-election bid last year, has denied the charges, and an appeal is pending.

Motl and his staff also cleared a backlog of campaign complaints that had piled up for years. He and his staff wrote regulations to enforce sweeping changes to the state’s campaign finance laws passed by lawmakers in 2015. Candidates for state office are now required to file reports and disclosures electronically and more frequently as a result.

Motl said the partisanship accusations against him are untrue, and that he enforced more campaign violations against Democrats than Republicans during his tenure. He said he believes he is leaving an independent office that voters have confidence will act on any issue that casts doubt on the fairness of Montana’s elections.

“I think that’s the expectation now,” he said. “I think it’s something people should expect. It’s something Commissioner Mangan should have as an asset.”

Matthew Monforton, a former Republican legislator and an attorney who has represented lawmakers in litigation against Motl, said he believes Motl’s legacy will be that he “weaponized” the political practices office against conservatives.

“If there is one redeeming quality, I’ve been able to make a comfortable living over the last few years defending conservative Republicans against Motl’s violations of their civil rights,” Monforton said.

Mangan said he believes Motl has done a good job and that he is leaving the office in good shape.

“Getting through campaign finance these last few years, dark money, different things that have happened in Montana - it’s quite remarkable the amount of work that has been done,” Mangan said.

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