This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.
The confirmation process for Gov. Greg Gianforte’s pick to be Montana’s new Commissioner of Political Practices is underway.
On Friday, the Senate State Administration Committee voted unanimously to confirm longtime attorney and lobbyist Chris Gallus as the new commissioner after peppering him with a series of mostly friendly questions about his philosophy on campaign law and approach to the office.
“The foundational purpose for the office — and it’s one I believe in strongly — is that people have the freedom to speak, the freedom to engage in political discourse, and in the political process, and while doing so, the public has the right to accurate and timely disclosure of information,” Gallus testified Friday.
His confirmation now awaits a vote before the full Senate. Gallus, whose appointment was announced by the governor last month after a legislative committee failed to agree on a pick, would replace former commissioner Jeff Mangan. Mangan concluded his six-year term at the end of last year.
The COPP is often dubbed the state’s top political cop. The office, created by the 1975 Legislature, enforces state campaign finance law and investigates related complaints. It also oversees candidate campaign finance and lobbyist disclosures.
Looking back on six years as COPP
Over the past two decades, the commissioner of political practices has become one of Montana’s highest profile and most controversial posts. After six years as COPP, Jeff Mangan reflects on the challenges raised by social media, election skepticism and political neutrality.
“Montanans deserve a political system that is transparent and ethical, and they count on an independent, nonpartisan, well-qualified commissioner of political practices to serve as a watchdog to preserve that system,” Gianforte said in a statement announcing Gallus’ selection last month. “I have every confidence Chris Gallus will serve as commissioner with honor and integrity.”
Gallus hails from Butte, and has worked as an attorney for the past 26 years. Much of that work, he said, has involved campaign ethics, policial practices and lobbying law, including as director of government affairs and legal counsel for the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
He’s also represented a number of conservative candidates and causes, including in cases before the commissioner’s office. Those groups include the Montana Growth Network, which faced a hefty enforcement action by then-Commissioner Jonathan Motl for disclosure violations incurred during the 2012 election cycle.
He acknowledged before the committee Friday that lawmakers would likely have questions about how he would navigate his ties to past clients should they become involved in complaints before the commissioner’s office.
He said statute allows for the commissioner to recuse him or herself and appoint a deputy should a conflict of interest arise, and that he’s already taken that step with one case before the office, which he is currently occupying while the confirmation process proceeds.
“When a former client appears before me, it’ll get the correct amount of scrutiny,” he said.
Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, asked Gallus if there were previous cases before the COPP that he felt were wrongly decided.
“I can think of several, all of which were times the commissioner ruled against me,” he said, half-joking.
In seriousness, he pointed to one case where a client sued the commissioner to have his case heard in Gallatin County, rather than before a judge in Lewis and Clark County. Gallus said he would depart from the practice of previous commissioners who have generally referred most prosecutions to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney.
“It was an interpretation of the commissioner at the time that the violations, since they typically constituted reporting violations, that those violations occurred in the commissioner’s office” — and thus were filed in Lewis and Clark County, he said. “The change that I would actually make is to start sending these back to county attorneys where candidates are.”
Gallus received supporting testimony from a number of political figures, including Gianforte policy director Glenn Oppel and current Montana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Charles Robison.
Perhaps more surprising was the endorsement he received from longtime Butte Democratic politico Evan Barrett, who has worked with Gallus on economic development issues in Butte-Silver Bow County. Barrett was among the lawmakers and staffers who helped craft the state’s campaign practices law back in 1974, he said.
“I have often disagreed with the groups that Chris represented. But I never questioned that they were getting good legal advice from Chris Gallus,” Barrett testified.
The Session: Health care funding, childcare initiatives, and vaccine bills
We’re on day 55 of the 90 day session. This week we’re talking about health care funding, childcare initiatives and vaccine bills.
Funding increase targets career development for students
Lawmakers in House Appropriations Friday probed the details of a proposed $1.5 million investment in workforce development for K-12 students. The money would be split evenly among seven existing Career and Technology Student Organizations that connect students with apprenticeships, job shadowing and skill-building conferences and competitions.
EPA and Montana Resources promise action after InvestigateWest report exposes public health concerns
Following revelations about the Environmental Protection Agency’s cozy relationship with a mining company in Butte, the EPA this week announced a series of steps meant to “increase transparency” and engagement with the local community.