HELENA — A Republican lawmaker is once again urging his colleagues in the Legislature to eliminate the office charged with enforcing Montana’s campaign practice laws.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, introduced House Bill 535 to the House State Administration Committee Thursday. The bill seeks to replace the governor-appointed Commissioner of Political Practices with a four-person bipartisan council selected by legislative leadership, and to transfer oversight of campaign finance reporting to the Secretary of State. All campaign practice complaints would be reviewed by the council, Skees explained, and those worth pursuing would be sent to county attorneys or the attorney general for investigation. 

Skees argued that restructuring Montana’s campaign practice enforcement that way would prevent the commissioner’s office from being “used as a hammer” against a particular party — something he alleged Democratic governors have done to Republicans in the recent past.

“This is kind of a filter mechanism to slow down complaints that are partisan in nature,” Skees said.

No one except Skees offered public testimony in support of the bill. Opponent testimony went on for almost half an hour. Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan outlined for committee members the long list of duties assigned to his office under law, including oversight of legislative lobbying activity and the handling of all ethics complaints against elected officials and state employees. Mangan, who was appointed by former Gov. Steve Bullock and confirmed by the 2017 state Senate, challenged the characterization of his office as a partisan cudgel and maintained he’s not beholden to any political party or elected official. Mangan’s term lasts until 2023.

“The COPP has worked very hard to be an independent, fair and impartial agency,” Mangan said. “We are arguably one of the most visible agencies in state government. We are responsible to the citizens of the state of Montana.”

Several members of Mangan’s staff also testified against HB 535, as did former Democratic legislator Tom Woods of Bozeman. Woods questioned whether the bill would actually accomplish Skees’ nonpartisan goals, since it transfers much of the commissioner’s oversight to the Secretary of State — a partisan elected office.

“Having a commissioner of political practices is like having an umpire in a baseball game. Somebody has to call the balls and strikes,” Woods said. “But what this bill does is make the umpire a member of the home team, and that’s a bad idea.”

This isn’t the first time Skees has tried to eliminate the COPP. He carried a similar measure in the 2017 Legislature. That bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote but died in the Senate. At the time, Skees attributed his push to what he called corruption in the commissioner’s office. This week, however, he narrowed his critique specifically to the tenure of former commissioner Jonathan Motl, who led a years-long investigation into illicit campaign activity by several Republican primary candidates. Motl’s investigation, which was the subject of the 2018 documentary film Dark Money, resulted in the conviction of former Bozeman Republican legislator Art Wittich on charges of illegal coordination.

In a nod to that saga, Skees quipped several times during the Thursday hearing that if Gov. Greg Gianforte appointed Wittich as commissioner, “I’d have 150 cosigners on this bill.”

The House has until the Feb. 28 transmittal break to decide whether to advance HB 535.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...