HELENA — Political Practices Commissioner Dave Gallik officially resigned Wednesday, in the wake of allegations that he was spending state time on his private law practice — and the search for his successor immediately touched off a partisan dispute.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, asked state legislative leaders to give him a list of nominees by next Wednesday for the next commissioner, which he appoints. The governor isn’t obliged to choose a commissioner from the list recommended by legislators and can select anyone he wants.
Yet Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said Republican leaders wanted more time, because a week isn’t sufficient to come up the right person for the politically sensitive and important post of commissioner.
“Given the last two misfires, we need to take a little more time here and describe a little bit more what we’re looking for, and allow some time for applications,” he said. “We need to find someone who is as nonpolitical as possible.”
The political practices commissioner enforces state campaign and ethics laws and administers the reporting of lobbyist spending and campaign finances by state candidates and political groups.
Gallik was appointed last May, after state Senate Republicans refused to confirm Schweitzer’s prior appointee, Jennifer Hensley, who spent only four months on the job. Gallik is a Democratic former state legislator; Hensley had worked on several Democratic campaigns.
A top legislative Democrat said Wednesday evening that a week is plenty of time to come up with nominees, and that the governor and lawmakers should move quickly to find a replacement, because the political season is well under way.
“We are now in the (campaign) season; we’ve gotta roll here,” said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte. “We cannot have an extended period of time where we have this office without its leader.”
Gallik, a Helena attorney, submitted a one-sentence resignation letter Wednesday, saying he was departing “due to current circumstances.”
In an interview Wednesday, Gallik said he initially had planned to stay on the job, disputing charges made public last weekend by four office staffers about his time spent on his private law practice while still holding the $57,700-a-year commissioner’s job.
Yet when he discovered that staffers had called Helena police Tuesday afternoon after he left the office to speak with a reporter, Gallik said he decided he couldn’t work with them anymore.
“They’re spending all their time finding fault with me and not doing the job,” he said. “So I said, ‘I’m done.’ ... It became clear to me that I could not afford to go back into that office, because obviously even when I’m not there, there are more false accusations of some sort.”
Mary Baker, program supervisor at the office, said office staff called police Tuesday because they felt that Gallik left the office in anger and were worried what he would do when he returned.
“You can imagine how tense the office is; we were just concerned about safety,” she said. “I don’t think he would physically harm anyone; we were more concerned about an escalated verbal attack. ... I think the tensions were high enough that we were concerned he might be pretty upset.”
The Great Falls Tribune reported the staffers’ allegations on Sunday. Tuesday was the first day back at work for Gallik and the four staffers, after the Monday holiday.
Helena Assistant Police Chief Dave Jeseritz said Wednesday that an officer was called to the Political Practices Office at 3:28 p.m. Tuesday for a “welfare check,” and that he reported at 3:46 p.m. that things were clear and no further action was needed.
Gallik had taken a telephone call at the office from the Gazette State Bureau shortly before 3:30 p.m. and then left the building to call the reporter back on a private cellphone, saying he wanted some privacy to discuss the allegations against him. He didn’t return to the office Tuesday.
Baker and her fellow staffers issued a statement Wednesday, saying they had “worked diligently for the past several months to address our concerns about what appears to be unethical conduct by the commissioner.”
“This has been a very stressful and difficult situation for all those involved,” the statement said. “We remain optimistic that the integrity of this office will be restored.”
The staffers said Gallik often wasn’t at the office and was logging time at the state when he had been working on cases for his private practice. They also accused him of using the state office to work on private legal cases.
Gallik told the Gazette State Bureau that he might have occasionally taken a call at the state office from his private practice on routine matters, but that he took care to keep the two jobs separate — and that he was getting the work done at the commissioner’s office, completing opinions and other work on time.
He also said he kept two computer screens at his private law office — one for working on private legal cases and one for the state commissioner work.