HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock on Monday appointed Helena lawyer Jonathan Motl to be the state’s next political practices commissioner.
The commissioner is in charge of enforcing state laws dealing with campaign finances and practices, ethics and legislative lobbying.
“I think he’ll do a great job,” Bullock said. “I think the whole state will benefit from his experience and his work ethic.”
Bullock said legislative leaders sent him a list of talented individuals, and that Motl rose to the top based on his experience and background.
Motl, who will wrap up his longtime private law practice, will begin the new job by June 10. His starting salary as commissioner will be $62,500 a year.
“I am so happy,” Motl said in an interview. “I’m delighted and grateful.”
He will fill the remainder of the six-year term that ends on Jan. 1, 2017. His appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.
Motl will be the fourth person appointed to fill out the six-year term since Commissioner Dennis Unsworth’s term expired at the end of 2010.
Three Democratic commissioners appointed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer did not go through the confirmation process in the Republican-controlled Senate for various reasons.
Eleven people applied for the latest vacancy. A panel of the top four legislative leaders from both political parties narrowed the field to five and after interviews recommended all of them to Bullock.
The governor, who was free to choose anyone he wanted, also interviewed all five finalists last week.
Motl is a partner in the Helena law firm of Morrison, Motl and Sherwood. He received his law degree in 1975 from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.
As a private lawyer, he has practiced extensively before past political practices commissioners, representing ballot issue proponents and opponents and candidates and their campaign committees.
Motl has donated $6,800 to Montana political campaigns since 1992, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Discounting contributions to ballot issue campaigns and nonpartisan judicial races, Motl has given slightly more than $5,000 in partisan statewide and legislative races, all to Democrats. That includes $790 to Bullock in his races for attorney general and governor.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, who sat on the interview committee, praised Motl’s appointment.
“Having known Jonathan as an attorney, I think he’s a great choice,” Hunter said. “I believe in Jonathan Motl’s professionalism and his ability to separate one thing from another.
“He really understands the process. He had a very thoughtful analysis of when is a conflict (of interest) a conflict.”
Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said he’s been critical of how the commissioner’s office is set up, with the same person serving as prosecutor, judge and jury.
“I had been hopeful that the governor would pick someone who is perceived as less partisan and more even-handed until we can get the office restructured in the future,” Essmann said. “This is the fourth consecutive pick where the selected commissioner has had close political ties to the governor.
“It’s quite doubtful that any Republican who is subject to a negative verdict from the new commissioner is going to feel like he got a fair shake from an impartial judge, which is what he deserved.”
“This is now the fourth Democratic hack appointee in a row,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman. “He’s probably going to target only Republicans, leading to more scandal, like the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). We need to depoliticize the office.”
As commissioner, Motl said, “The main thing is the office is nonpartisan, and it is independent. I view my function as serving the people of Montana and following the law. That is the way I will carry out the work. I fully understand there is a very dedicated staff there. It will be a joint effort by the people on the staff there and me.”
Motl said he was “inclined not to recuse myself, but would if necessary.” The office has a “limited budget and tremendous workload” so the commissioner must do his share of the work, he said.
“I’m going to be disinclined to spend the public’s money on an outside attorney,” Motl said.