Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, says a bill she’s sponsoring would close a loophole in state law regarding who is subject to the Montana Code of Ethics — and who has enforcement authority when ethics laws are violated.

During a House State Administration Committee hearing Wednesday morning, McKamey said House Bill 97 adds specificity and inclusivity to current law by clearly outlining that members of local boards and commissions are subject to oversight from the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Current law states that legislators, state officers and state employees are subject to investigation by the Commissioner of Political Practices. The changes proposed by House Bill 97 would add to that list members of local and state boards and commissions, as well as quasi-judicial bodies and committees with rule-making authority.

The bill stems from a 2018 case in which Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan censured the Montana Board of Regents. Mangan found that the regents violated the code of ethics by politicking for the passage of a six-mill levy to support higher education funding. He issued a $3,000 fine, saying the board had inappropriately used government property and time in its efforts to encourage the mill levy’s passage.

Regent Martha Sheehy, a Billings attorney, challenged Mangan’s decision, first in a state district court and then in the Montana Supreme Court. Last year, Montana Supreme Court justices sided with Sheehy, saying the Commissioner of Political Practices has enforcement authority over legislators, state officers and state employees, but not the Board of Regents and other public employees. The court also said the Board of Regents is subject to the state code of ethics, but is not subject to enforcement by the Commissioner of Political Practices.

Speaking during the House State Administration Committee’s hearing on the bill, Mangan said his office has been operating under the assumption that it has the authority to enforce the code of ethics on boards and commissions, and this bill would codify that authority. He added that there’s one case his office would like to adjudicate that it currently can’t, based on the state Supreme Court’s ruling. 

“This bill simply provides that language so it’s crystal clear who has authority when it comes to enforcement of the Montana Code of Ethics,” Mangan said.

No executive action on the bill was taken during Wednesday’s hearing. If it passes out of the House State Administration Committee, it will go before the full House for a vote.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...