Credit: Photo-illustration by Stephanie Farmer/MTFP

The interior of Montana’s political practices office has always looked a little strange, as if some decorator swapped the couches and beds of a Helena home for laminate-topped desks and cubicles in a fit of derangement. It’s cozy in its way, utilitarian yet lived in, a striking contrast to the stately marble and stained glass of the Capitol building one block south. If the Capitol dome symbolizes the decorum expected of the elected officials who work beneath it, this house-turned-workspace reflects the detachment necessary for an office charged with holding those officials to account.

In a corner office, its windows facing away from the Capitol toward the open spread of the Helena valley, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan sits in an armchair on a recent Tuesday fiddling with the folds of denim bunched at his knee. He’s five and a half years into his stint as what many in state media have styled Montana’s “top political cop,” and less than a month from his tenure’s end. Come Dec. 30, Mangan will officially close out his one and only term as commissioner.

When Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Mangan to head the six-staff agency in 2017, it was one of the highest-profile offices in state government. Years of scandal involving dark money in legislative races had made the COPP a regular fixture in headlines, and the efforts of Mangan’s predecessor, Jonathan Motl, to enforce campaign finance law fueled repeated attempts by the Republican Party’s rightmost wing to cripple or eliminate the commissioner’s post. That particular chapter in COPP history was punctuated by courtroom battles and an apparent office break-in, all of it captured in the 2018 documentary film “Dark Money” by Kimberly Reed (disclosure: which prominently features Montana Free Press founder John Adams).

Now, another chapter is about to close as Mangan prepares to exit the office for a job as an account executive in Microsoft’s state and local government division — a direction, he said, that will enable him to continue channeling his passion for government. Meanwhile, a bipartisan committee of state lawmakers is compiling a list of new commissioner candidates for Gov. Greg Gianforte to review. Gianforte’s final selection will be sent to the state Senate this coming session for confirmation.

But before he leaves the corner office and all eyes turn to the search for his replacement, Mangan took a pause to reflect on the vision he brought to the commissioner’s office nearly six years ago, the challenges he inherited, and the new ones he had to contend with.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE OFFICE

By spring 2017, the office of political practices had become synonymous with Motl’s name. Routine allegations that Mangan’s predecessor conducted “witch hunts” against Republicans, coupled with Motl’s widely publicized legal fight to hold former state Rep. Art Wittich accountable for his dark money associations, put the former commissioner at the forefront of the agency’s activity. Once he entered the post, Mangan immediately set about refocusing the public’s perception on the agency itself.

“It had to be about the office if the office was going to survive because the work that the office does is so important to the citizens of the state of Montana,” Mangan said. “It shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of any individual.”

“It had to be about the office if the office was going to survive because the work that the office does is so important to the citizens of the state of Montana. It shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of any individual.”

Outgoing Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan

Executing that goal was an exercise in subtly. Mangan worked to understand his staff’s various roles in collecting and reporting public information about political candidates, committees and lobbyists. He developed a professional mantra around the specific areas of state law the office is charged with upholding and sought to enforce those laws as a team. And when talking to the press, he made it a point to always speak on behalf of the office as a whole.

“Even today,” Mangan said, “it’s the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with a reporter about me.”

COMMISSIONER AS EDUCATOR

Another of Mangan’s top goals as a newly minted commissioner was to address what he saw as a widespread lack of understanding of the rules laid out for candidates and political committees in state law. Contribution limits, disclosure requirements, deadlines for reporting fundraising and spending information — Mangan quickly began to view his role as one of an educator on campaign practices.

To that end, he took to the road at certain points on the electoral calendar conducting presentations in regional hubs like Billings and Missoula, alleviating the need for candidates to travel to Helena in search of information.

“I thought the role of the commissioner was to be the person out there talking to the candidates so they understood straight from the horse’s mouth what the responsibilities were and what the consequences were,” Mangan said. “I always said, ‘I would much rather be talking to you about this in this kind of a format — talking about why we report and how to report — rather than having to deal with it on the other end in a complaint process,’ which isn’t pleasant for the candidate or the office.”

Mangan partly credits that educational push for a slight reduction in the volume and complexity of campaign practice complaints filed in recent years. Whether through his presentations or phone calls to his staff, candidates are “finding the information they need,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the in-person instruction, but Mangan now sees that disruption as a “blessing in disguise.” By switching to virtual presentations, he said, the office was able to reach “a lot more people,” and recording those meetings created a readily available resource for future political hopefuls to access.

POLITICAL ISOLATION

There’s a lot that falls under the purview of Montana’s commissioner of political practices. In addition to overseeing compliance with campaign finance disclosure rules, the office handles all registration and reporting related to lobbying activity in state government. It’s also charged with responding to and enforcing ethics complaints lodged against elected officials or government workers. As a result, the person occupying the post is expected to be a politically neutral arbiter. That expectation is strongly hinted at in the qualifications set in state law, which include “a confirmable track record of highly ethical professional behavior” and “the demonstrable ability to be firm, fair, and unbiased in carrying out professional responsibilities.”

In fact, Mangan said, one of his greatest personal challenges over the past six years has been political isolation. Mangan represented Great Falls as a Democrat in the Montana Legislature from 1998 to 2006 — two terms in the House followed by two in the Senate. He’s a self-professed “government wonk” with a passion for procedure at the state and local levels. But as commissioner, he said, he had to actively remove himself from any political scenario, declining invitations to events and rallies and relying solely on a few close friends to vent any personal frustrations.

“One of the hardest parts about this job, just in general, is it’s so isolating,” Mangan said. “I have to self-isolate. I can’t get involved with any kinds of things that are considered political, whether it be social media or whatever.”

While there remain staunch critics of the office itself, Mangan appears to have been largely successful at maintaining his professional neutrality. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, worked closely with Mangan this year on a bipartisan workgroup designed to counter misinformation about election procedures and security. Bedey told MTFP he found Mangan to be “a man of absolute principle and integrity.” Former Republican Rep. Derek Skees commended Mangan’s tenure last session, even as he introduced a proposal to eliminate the office and shift its responsibilities to the secretary of state.

“In the case we have currently, I think it’s a phenomenal success,” Skees said of the COPP in February 2021.

THE SOCIAL MEDIA CONUNDRUM

In the lead-up to the 2020 election season, a new question began to surface among campaign wonks throughout Montana. Political advertising on social media was catching fire and, as the Associated Press reported in an analysis piece, nearly all the candidates in Montana’s gubernatorial field had not adequately disclosed details required under state law in early Facebook ads.

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It’s exactly the sort of judgment call that lands on the commissioner of political practices’ desk, and Mangan said he and his staff reached a determination quickly: Political ads paid for and distributed via social media were no different than any other brand of campaign or electioneering communication. A memo went out from his office to political candidates that year clarifying that all advertising on Facebook and other social media platforms had to be reported in accordance with state disclosure laws. Those laws may not specifically reference such advertising, but to Mangan, the language clearly fits.

“It’s no different than a mailer, it’s no different than a TV advertisement or a radio advertisement,” he said. “‘Election communication’ is an election communication supporting or opposing a candidate or a ballot issue, and you’re simply going to report the amount of money that you’re spending on that election communication.”

The now widespread use of social media in campaigning has, of course, continued to lead to the occasional complaint. Most recently, a complaint was filed against Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s federally registered political committee, Leadership in Action, alleging that a sponsored Facebook ad violated Montana’s attribution law. According to his decision, Mangan emailed the committee shortly after his office received the complaint and the ads were promptly updated with the required attribution information. Mangan subsequently dismissed the complaint the next day.

NEW RELATIONSHIPS

In 2018, Montana voters approved the Legislature’s Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which Republicans billed as a tool to secure the process of individuals collecting and delivering voted ballots on behalf of others. Critics countered that the system implemented by the act — requiring ballot collectors to register in advance and limiting their collection to six ballots — threatened to infringe on the rights of voters who faced physical barriers to returning their ballots themselves.

For county election administrators, that system raised new challenges in handling BIPA registry forms and communicating with registrants about compliance questions. The law also fell under COPP’s jurisdiction, Mangan explained, requiring his office to forge new relationships with officials across Montana’s 56 counties.

“The only way to enforce it and to implement it was to have a very complicated and hands-on approach with every election office in the state, and it was just very cumbersome for us to administer without any additional dollars,” Mangan said. “So we were on the phone talking with election administrators all the time.”

Many county administrators were already feeling pressured due to then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s push to launch a brand new statewide election software platform in time for the 2020 general election — a timeline the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders cautioned was “very worrisome.” Neither challenge lasted long. Stapleton withdrew his proposed timeline for the software rollout in fall 2019, and by fall 2020, a state court had struck down BIPA. But the relationship between county election officials and Mangan’s office had already been well established, and would become central to perhaps the biggest issue to hit Montana elections during Mangan’s tenure.

ELECTION INTEGRITY

By now, Montana’s ongoing debate over the integrity of its elections is a familiar topic. The situation here mirrors a national rise in skepticism and denialism following former President Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020. Election officials have increasingly had to contend with allegations of wrongdoing, troubling behavior and mountains of open records requests, many involving the same lines of inquiry promoted by high-profile 2020 election denialists elsewhere in the country.

Mangan has been one of the few statewide officers in Montana to clearly and unequivocally denounce the election skepticism movement. During a legislative interim committee hearing last May, he criticized the constant flow of misinformation about election processes and told state lawmakers that it was “coming from some of your colleagues.” It’s been an especially challenging issue to remain politically neutral on, Mangan told MTFP, adding that his May committee appearance was one of the few times he’s had to confine himself to reading from a written statement.

“It’s unfortunate more elected officials that had a bigger voice than the commissioner’s office weren’t out there beating the drum that Montanans can feel confident in the integrity, fairness and independence of their elections,” Mangan said, “because the people that are running them are their neighbors, government workers and folks that have been doing this job for a long, long time.”

In addition to taking a firm stand against misinformation, Mangan says he has tried to serve as a professional and personal bulwark for those who are taking the brunt of the debate: county officials. Sweet Grass County Clerk and Recorder Vera Pederson, whose duties include election administration, told MTFP that she and others in her line of civil service have a “closer working relationship with the COPP” than ever before, “in part due to all the controversy and turmoil of the elections now.”

“We have needed his opinion on more issues than in previous years,” said Pederson, who also serves as president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders. “As a group, we are striving to have those close working relationships with the COPP, [secretary of state’s] office and other people involved with elections.”

Mangan initially announced via Twitter in early October that he would resign his post effective Nov. 7, the day before Montana’s 2022 midterm election. He later retracted that news, again via Twitter, and confirmed he would serve out the rest of his term. In speaking with MTFP, Mangan attributed that reversal to a desire to continue supporting county election officials through the entire electoral process — particularly those officials in Cascade and Carbon counties, which experienced the most direct and visible issues with election skepticism this November.

When it comes to election integrity in particular, Mangan has no intention of letting his contributions to the conversation dwindle after leaving the commissioner’s office. He’s already made a commitment, he said, to continue providing support for other officials in the election sphere, in hopes that they can “drown out this disinformation.”

“We have pride in our football teams, we have pride in our communities, we have pride in all of this stuff, and we used to have pride in our elections,” Mangan said. “I think a lot of us still do. We just need to grab that back and start shouting that from the rooftops and letting our fellow officials and fellow professionals know that we’re doing a hell of a job.”

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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...