A Montana lawmaker sued Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl on Friday for saying the legislator faces penalties for revealing a confidential ethics complaint he filed against Gov. Steve Bullock, a lawsuit Motl said was timed to sway voters in a close governor’s race.
The attorney for Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, says in the federal lawsuit that Motl’s threat of penalties has silenced him and prevents him from performing legislative acts.
“Motl is violating Rep. Tschida’s First Amendment right to free speech by threatening him with criminal sanctions for communicating with fellow legislators concerning an inherently legislative duty,” wrote Tschida’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, who is also a Republican representative from Bozeman.
“What we’ve got here is a pretty serious magnification of an original improper action by Mr. Tschida,” Motl said. Monforton “didn’t improve Mr. Tschida’s situation. He made it worse. And now he’s involved in it himself.”
Tschida disclosed to other lawmakers that he filed the ethics complaint in September against Bullock with Motl’s office. Under state law, such complaints are confidential until the commissioner makes a ruling on them.
Tschida sent the letter to lawmakers on Tuesday, a week before voters decide between the Democratic incumbent and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte and with the complaint still unresolved.
Tschida alleges Bullock and Commerce Director Meg O’Leary misused the state plane by flying to a Paul McCartney concert in 2014, an accusation often repeated by Gianforte. It also alleges that Bullock and O’Leary accepted an illegal gift by accepting an invitation to sit in University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s box at the stadium where the concert was held.
Motl said after the ethics complaint was revealed that Tschida’s position as a legislator does not permit him to disclose a confidential complaint, and the violation amounts to official misconduct. The commissioner declined to say what penalties Monforton could face, saying “the appropriateness or inappropriateness of anyone’s actions will be straightened out afterward.”
Motl also said he believes Tschida’s revelations and the lawsuit describing the complaint in the final week before the election were deliberately timed to influence the governor’s race.
“It can only be that there’s something they want to get out there that they can’t put out any other way,” Motl said. “You can’t have people filing ethics complaints in the heat of elections, and then deciding they’re going to break the laws regarding those ethics complaints unilaterally.”
“That wasn’t the purpose of any of this, but a natural consequence of Motl’s misconduct and threats is that voters will learn more about the governor’s misconduct before they cast their ballots on Tuesday,” Monforton said. “That is unquestionably a good thing.”