- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Republican-controlled panel of Montana senators shot down on Monday the Democratic governor’s pick for the nation’s only one-person state ethics commission.

Members of the Senate State Administration Committee voted along party lines to table the proposed confirmation of Helena attorney Jonathan Motl as Montana commissioner of political practices.

Motl has received sharp criticism since taking office in May 2013, when Gov. Steve Bullock appointed him to replace commissioner James Murry, who resigned the month prior.

In the last two years, Motl has whittled down a backlog of more than 100 campaign complaints. He’s taken numerous Republican lawmakers to court in the process, including one who spoke against Motl on Monday.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said Motl has launched a “biased political crusade against conservatives and only conservatives.” Wittich is scheduled to face Motl in court Feb. 22 for a jury trial to decide whether he violated campaign practice laws in his 2010 primary.

Wittich said Motl has filed no judicial cases against Democrats, which Democratic Sen. Sue Malek of Missoula said was misleading because administrative cases have been brought against Democrats in her city.

Rick Sherwood, an attorney who worked with Motl in private practice for 27 years, spoke for Motl’s character and commitment to election law.

“He likes the subject and he knows it well,” Sherwood said. “I doubt that anyone else currently has as much expertise in Montana campaign law as does Jon Motl; he has been a great bargain for the state.”

Motl helped craft an overhaul of Montana’s campaign finance laws that passed out of the Republican-led Legislature last week. Bullock openly supported and is expected to sign Senate Bill 289, sponsored by Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, to require public reports of all political donations and expenditures.

Some have criticized the bill for giving too much rulemaking authority to the commissioner.

Ed Argenbright, who served as Montana commissioner of political practices from 1993-1999, said Motl has taken a heavy-handed approach to enforcing campaign laws.

Argenbright said the position used to be more about assisting political candidates with compliance rather than litigating when they don’t. It’s a distinction he said is especially grave given the influence Montana has concentrated in its one-person watchdog. According to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures, every other state political ethics board comprises at least four people.

“Montana’s commissioner has more power than virtually any other commissioner around the country,” Argenbright said, later adding, “this person is untouchable in a sense, and I’ve been there.”

Trevis Butcher, a Winifred resident and former political organizer who in the last decade has filed and received political practice complaints, said Motl is unfit for the position. Butcher said Motl has ignored campaign complaints against Bullock and allowed union spending to go unreported.

“Literally Jonathan Motl is to campaign finance law what Jerry Sandusky is to child care,” Butcher said, referring to the convicted child molester. He later rescinded the comment at the committee chair’s request.

Despite the committee’s action, Motl’s confirmation could be considered by the Senate as a whole if 26 of 50 senators agree to bring it to the floor.

The position carries fixed six-year terms, the latest of which began in 2010. If he’s confirmed, Motl’s term will end Dec. 31, 2016. If he’s not confirmed, the governor will appoint a different commissioner who will serve out of the rest of the term without Senate confirmation.

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