HELENA — State lawmakers considering whether to water down the powers of the person who polices their conduct in election campaigns voted Wednesday to draft legislation that would change how the commissioner of political practices is chosen.
The Montana Legislature directed the State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Interim Committee to consider changes to the commissioner's office before Commissioner Jonathan Motl was appointed last year. But Motl's ongoing investigation into a secretive conservative group's dealings with Republican candidates was brought up again and again in Wednesday's committee hearing by both critics and supporters.
Committee chairwoman Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said the aim of the panel is improve the office's credibility and effectiveness by removing the politics from the appointment process and assessing the commissioner's powers.
"The complaint is that you are the jury, the executor, the all-knowing," Brown said to Motl. "Sometimes complete power corrupts, and I wouldn't want that to happen in the commissioner's office."
Motl responded that his decisions on campaign allegations don't have the force of law and must be affirmed in court with punishment handed down by a judge, if a settlement is not reached.
The true power of his office is that it allows greater public scrutiny into campaign practices and how a candidate becomes a public official, he said.
"I see the commissioner as a spokesperson for the public with a lot of responsibility, but not much power," Motl said.
Motl has found that nine candidates, including two current legislators, illegally coordinated with and took unreported in-kind contributions from Western Tradition Partnership in their 2010 primary election campaigns. He filed his findings as civil actions in district court and asked a judge to affirm them and consider ordering the removal of those legislators from office and the 2014 ballot.
The accused candidates and legislators have denied any wrongdoing.
The investigation has prompted angry responses by several legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Art Wittch, R-Bozeman, one of the accused who previously called Motl a "partisan hack."
The committee voted Wednesday to draft a bill that would create a panel to choose future nominees for the post, and the governor would have to make his appointment from that list.
Currently, the governor does not have to pick any of the candidates recommended by legislative leaders, but the six-year appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate. If he or she is not confirmed, the commissioner leaves office at the end of the legislative session, and the governor selects a new appointee to fill the office until the Legislature meets again.
The Senate hasn't confirmed an appointee since 2010, leading to a revolving door of short-term commissioners and accusations the appointments are driven by partisan politics.
Other ideas being considered by the committee include replacing the commissioner with a full panel of commissioners, preventing the governor from appointing a commissioner while the Legislature is out of session and reducing the four-year time limit to investigate a campaign allegation, among others.
Brown told committee members their ideas would be considered for inclusion in the bill, which would go to the 2015 Legislature for consideration.
The committee voted against recommending a special legislative session to hold an early vote to confirm Motl's appointment.
Motl's confirmation hearing isn't scheduled until the 2015 session.