- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A federal judge has dismissed claims that Montana’s commissioner of political practices retaliated against a state lawmaker who publicly disclosed a confidential ethics complaint against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock just before the November elections.

But U.S. District Judge Brian Morris will allow Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, to pursue his allegation that the state law requiring ethics complaints be kept confidential violates his free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Tschida’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, said Wednesday he will appeal the dismissal of the retaliation allegations against Commissioner Jonathan Motl but is pleased the free-speech claim will proceed.

“We are going to begin preparing for trial on that matter,” Monforton said. “One of the questions is Motl’s intent with regard to suppressing Tschida’s ethics complaint against Gov. Bullock until after the election. We intend to obtain evidence on that issue.”

Tschida filed a complaint last year that Bullock and former Commerce Director Meg O’Leary misused a state-owned plane in 2014 when they attended a Paul McCartney concert in Missoula. State law requires that an ethics complaint remain confidential until the commissioner of political practices decides whether to accept it, but Tschida disclosed the complaint to other lawmakers in a letter in early November, about a week before Bullock was re-elected.

Motl responded by saying in a radio interview that the disclosure could result in prosecution for official misconduct. He later dismissed the ethics complaint against Bullock.

Tschida alleged Motl deliberately failed to take action on the complaint before the election, and that Motl’s threat of prosecution was a malicious retaliation meant to keep him from exercising his free-speech rights. He sued on that claim and that the law requiring confidentiality over ethics complaints is unconstitutional.

Morris ruled in one of two orders Tuesday that more information is needed before he can rule on the constitutionality question. However, he dismissed the retaliation claims, saying Motl has immunity as a state official upholding a state law.

Motl never said he would be the one who would prosecute Tschida, only that Tschida could be subject to punishment under the law, Morris wrote.

“The court may question Motl’s judgment in commenting about the potential consequences of his ethics complaint given the circumstances of a high profile election season and his significant position as commissioner of political practices,” Morris wrote. “Officials enjoy ‘breathing room,’ however, to make ‘reasonable but mistaken judgments.’”

Motl said he is pleased with the court’s decision and that part of his job is to provide information to the public about Montana’s campaign laws.

“I believe I did everything as commissioner in good faith,” Motl said. “You can’t just stand by if there’s a challenge to Montana’s campaign finance laws.”

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