- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Mailers titled “Montana Voters’ Guide for Judicial Elections” sent by a group supporting Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat’s re-election campaign do not pose the same potential legal problems as fliers sent by Stanford University and Dartmouth College researchers, the commissioner of political practices ruled Friday.

Commissioner Jonathan Motl on Friday dismissed a complaint by Montana Republican Party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood against the group that sent the pro-Wheat mailer, Montanans for Liberty and Justice.

Wheat is seeking to keep his seat on the court against challenger Lawrence Van Dyke in a race in which outside groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers and television ads.

Greenwood compared the liberty and justice group’s mailer to the one sent last week as part of a Stanford and Dartmouth research project. That mailer, sent to 100,000 Montana residents appeared to be an official document that used Montana’s seal and rated the candidates in the state’s two nonpartisan Supreme Court races by political ideology.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch called that mailer a deceitful attempt to influence the Supreme Court elections by appearing to be a document from the state. The presidents of the two schools earlier this week sent apology letters to the residents who received the mailers, and Motl’s office is investigating whether the mailers broke state election laws.

But Motl said in Friday’s ruling that the liberty and justice group’s mailer is different because it did not use the state seal and it did not inject partisanship into the non-partisan race.

The liberty and justice group’s mailer is a straightforward campaign piece that discloses who paid for it, and it did not present the image of an official state document as the Stanford flier did, Motl said in his decision.

Montanans for Liberty and Justice is a political committee that is largely funded by the political-action committee of the Montana Trial Lawyers’ Association.

Greenwood said the law firm that Motl co-founded, Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson and Deola, also contributed $10,000 to Montanans for Liberty and Justice. That presents a conflict of interest for Motl, Greenwood said.

“He should not have ruled in this because he is conflicted,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood filed a new complaint Friday with the commissioner’s office seeking to have the law firm ruled a political committee and to have Motl recuse himself.

In response, Motl said he has no conflict because he sold all of his financial interests in the law firm last year after becoming commissioner, and he was not consulted on any decisions about any contributions the firm planned to make.

“I realized that to do this job I had to sever myself completely from my former law firm, and I did that,” Motl said. “I did that because it was required in order to put someone in here who efficiently and quickly makes decisions.”

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