HELENA — As Montana’s new top political cop, Jonathan Motl says he wants the state to have a lively political discourse with as many people as possible involved in the political process.
But his job, he says, it to ensure that discourse is fair — and that when people or groups spend money to influence the outcome of an election, the source of that money is publicly disclosed.
“We’re not here to limit political debate,” he said in an interview Tuesday from his Helena office, which is a small state-owned house a block from the Capitol. “We’re here to keep it fair. … The function (of this office) is to keep it fair, within the rules, and to promote civil discourse.”
Motl, 65, a longtime attorney in Helena, began the job as Montana’s new commissioner of political practices on Monday.
Appointed late last month by Gov. Steve Bullock, Motl steps into the middle of debates over rapidly changing campaign finance laws and rules.
Campaign finance issues in Montana also have included the commissioner job itself.
Motl is the fourth person to hold the job the past two and a half years. State Senate Republicans refused to confirm an appointee in 2011, the next commissioner resigned in 2012 after a controversy over his work hours, and a third decided to retire this year before facing a Senate confirmation hearing.
Montana’s commissioner, appointed to a single six-year term, rules on campaign-conduct complaints, enforces ethics laws for public officials and collects and maintains records on campaign finances for Montana candidates and political groups.
Motl has donated about $5,000 to Democratic candidates in the past two decades, including $790 to Bullock, when he has run for governor and attorney general.
But Motl said Tuesday that he has never been attached to any one party or candidate and that his past involvement has been focused on preserving and working on the citizen-initiative process in Montana.
During his legal career, Motl has worked on initiatives to limit campaign contributions, prohibit corporations from spending on ballot-measure campaigns, increase tobacco taxes, require bottle deposits and restrict lobbying by former officeholders.
Motl is taking the reins of an office often criticized for its slow processing of campaign complaints, which aren’t resolved until years after they’re filed. It has 46 pending cases, including 14 in which the investigation is complete and awaiting a decision by the commissioner.
Motl had files from those 14 cases on his desk Tuesday, starting to review them to see if further investigation might be needed.
He said clearing up the backlog is his top priority, and that his experience as an attorney versed in campaign law should speed that decision process. The Legislature, for the first time in many years, also funded a staff attorney for the office, to be hired this summer.
Many of the cases before Motl concern one of the most controversial issues in modern politics: Whether and when a political group must disclose where it has spent and raised its money.
Motl said he is for maximum disclosure by political spenders, but that he’s not prejudging any case. His said his job will be to determine whether an entity is engaging in “express advocacy” for a candidate or cause — and, if so, to require them to file timely reports on their spending and fundraising.
“To the fullest extent that we can, we should ensure that all of the money spent (to influence) campaigns is fully disclosed, during the time of the election.” he said. “That is part of the public discourse.”
Who’s backing or opposing a candidate “says something about that person’s persuasions and values,” and voters should know that information when they decide whom to support, Motl said.
He also said the most important part of his job will be improving the office’s electronic database of campaign-finance information, so the press and public can more easily search and analyze campaign donations.
Motl’s term runs through 2016 — the remainder of the term that’s gone unfilled by his three predecessors — and said he’s thrilled to have the job.
“I will do the best job I can for every Montanan,” he said. “I’m very honored, and I truly see this as a position of public trust, not a position of public power.”