HELENA — Even as Republicans sought the high ground in the ongoing battle over Montana's troubled political practices office, inadvertently released emails show GOP leaders maneuvering to fill the ethics chief post with an ally.
Former Commissioner Dave Gallik resigned last week amid a public dispute with his staff over his work time, and the hullaballoo has escalated as a legislative interim committee discusses the issue and lawmakers deal with a Friday deadline to find new applicants.
Montana Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, took the podium at the hearing to accuse Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration of possibly erasing computer evidence that Peterson alleged could demonstrate that Gallik was doing work for his private law practice from a state computer. Gallik has denounced the charge, and a Department of Administration official testified the computer is being kept to preserve any evidence it may contain.
The lingering resentment, however, has come from Republicans angry with the governor for naming Democrats as the past two commissioners. The first was never confirmed last year by the Republican controlled Senate, leading to Gallik's appointment last summer.
An email sent to Peterson, who is among the legislative leaders now picking applicants to send to the Democratic governor, seems to indicate Republicans want an ally of their own in the office. The commissioner polices campaign finance issues and ethics complaints, although many complain the office is underfunded and its enforcement powers too weak to do an adequate job of either.
The email, which Peterson said he accidentally attached to application documents, shows a Republican lawmaker discussing ways to trick the governor into unknowingly picking an applicant the GOP views as a secret conservative ally. The email was pulled from the online application packages Friday morning.
Republican state Sen. Edward Buttrey, of Great Falls, wrote that an applicant named Johnny Walker "is really a Republican in Democrat's clothing."
"It would be a major coup, in my opinion, to get him appointed by the governor," Buttrey said of the applicant. "I doubt that our governor knows that he is really a conservative."
"We are not going to trick the governor on this. He will pick who he wants," Peterson said.
Schweitzer's office said it didn't have any comment on the issue.
A bipartisan panel, unable during the past two appointments to reach a consensus recommendation, meets next week in hope of finding common ground on suggested nominees. If not, Republicans and Democrats on the panel will separately forward recommendations to the governor — who can pick anyone he wants for the post.
As of Friday afternoon, more than a dozen had applied for the post before the Friday deadline to be considered for a legislative recommendation.
Peterson, the Senate president, said he really is committed to making sure a "political hack" is not appointed to the post. Long-term changes need to be made to the way commissioners are chosen in an effort to remove politics from the situation, he said.
"The process is broken, there is no doubt about that," Peterson said. "I want someone who will do the right things for the right reasons."
It became clear at the legislative interim committee that no one has a clear sense of what should be done about the allegations against Gallik.
A legislative staff attorney said laws on the matter are unclear and don't specifically ban a commissioner of political practice from working a second job while in office, as Gallik did by keeping his private law practice open.
Gallik has said he kept working at his law practice because he knew the GOP-controlled Senate would not confirm his appointment when it convenes in 2013.
And even if Gallik did work on a state computer, as his former staffers allege, it is unclear if any laws were broken — or even who would investigate them with no definitive indication of what could be accomplished now that Gallik has resigned.
Paula Stoll, with the Department of Administration, said her agency took Gallik's computer after his resignation. She said she found no evidence in emails or Internet history that Gallik was using it for outside work.
But Stoll also said that she has not found anyone that would claim to have a legal reason to investigate after checking with the offices of the governor, the attorney general and the legislative auditor.
Peterson said he and House Speaker Mike Milburn will ask the legislative auditor to investigate, which usually leads to a report with recommendations to fix any discovered operational deficiencies. Peterson held out hope that some sort of fuller investigation could be conducted, and he suggested perhaps the county attorney could decide to look at the situation for some reason.
Peterson said he hopes to find some authority to take the computer from the DOA.
"It needs to be put in a secure location and held by an objective party," Peterson said.