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February 10, 2023

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. 

“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. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Vote Viz

House Bill 234, a proposal sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, that would apply criminal penalties to public school employees who display or distribute “obscene” material to minors, passed out of the House this week, despite more than a dozen Republicans joining Democrats in opposition to the measure. 

Bill Report

House Bill 307, a Montana Freedom Caucus-backed measure that would allocate $1.275 billion to property and income tax rebates, was tabled by the House Taxation Committee Wednesday. A separate rebate package negotiated by moderate and hardline Republicans, which includes about $760 million in rebates, passed the House Feb. 2 and is pending in the Senate.

Senate Bill 191, a bill that sponsor Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said would make it more difficult for parties in a legal action to obtain a temporary restraining order or injunction, passed the House 66-33 on second reading Feb. 10. The flagship of several Fitzpatrick bills revising injunction law, the bill has flown through the House. It was both heard and passed in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 9, a relative rarity — most bills are voted on at least a day after being heard in committee. 

House Bill 271, a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Tuss, D-Havre, that would reseat the House and Senate by last name rather than party, passed out of the House Legislative Administration Committee this week on a 9-7 vote. 

Heard in the Halls

“This is one tax I don’t have to pay. I’ll let the hippies pay it instead.” 

Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, during floor debate on House Bill 55, a bill creating a tax on electric vehicle charging stations, on Feb. 9.

Background Reading

Gallus named Montana’s new political practices commissioner: For more on Gallus’ background and the latest other news appointment process, read here. (MTFP)

State statute concerning the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices

Republican lawmaker advancing changes to how courts issue injunctions: Read for more on proposed changes to the state’s injunction laws. (MTFP)

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