Democrats file suit to keep Motl in office

Helena – A group of Democrats has filed a lawsuit in a last minute attempt to keep controversial Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl in office for two more years.

Former Democrat State Senator Christine Kaufman;  outgoing Democrat Secretary of State Linda McCulloch;  A trial lawyer political action committee headed by Motl’s lawyer John Heenan called, Montanans for Experienced Judges ; and Al Smith the Executive Director of Montana Trial Lawyers Association filed suit in Lewis and Clark County District Court. The group is joined in the suit by Florida resident Jesse O’hara who formerly served in the State Legislature as a Republican from Great Falls.

The group argues that Jonathan Motl should have his own six year term as Commissioner rather the remaining 3 years of the term he was appointed for by fellow Democrat Governor Steve Bullock.

During the 2015 legislature, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 53 on a vote of 29-21 formally confirming Mr. Motl. The resolution states that Motl shall serve until January 1, 2017. Neither Ms. Kaufman , who was in the Senate and voted to confirm Motl, or Ms. McCulloch, who Secretary of State, voiced concerns over the duration of the term at that time.

“This is political chicanery at its worst,” said Republican Political Consultant Jake Eaton. “They are trying to ram this through, circumventing the law a few days before Christmas hoping that no one is paying attention. All so they can keep their hatchet-man in office for another election cycle.”

Eaton also said that Motl “had been on a clear mission to use his office to persecute political opponents since day one.”

A Controversial Figure

Motl has been a controversial figure since his name first surfaced as a possible nominee for the position. Prior to taking office, opponents pointed to Mr. Motl past activism in liberal causes, heavy financial support of Democrat candidates and the fact that he had been previously cited for campaign finance violations as reasons why he should not be appointed.

Since taking office Motl’s enforcement actions have been a mostly one-sided affair – against Republicans. Mr. Motl has taken the highly unusual step of prosecuting several Republican candidates and groups in District Court while taking much less severe actions or completely dismissing complaints filed against Democrats.

Mr. Motl’s actions have resulted in a number of lawsuits against the Commissioner’s office over alleged unethical behavior, including one filed by Eaton. Earlier this month, Eaton filed a lawsuit in Yellowstone County District Court over Motl’s refusal to recuse himself from considering a complaint filed by the Montana Trial Lawyers Association.

In that case, Attorneys for Eaton argued that Motl could not be unbiased in investigating the complaint and his decision to not rescue himself was an abuse of discretion, violated the Montana Administrative Procedures Act and due process.

As evidence of Motl’s bias Eaton’s attorneys pointed to several facts: 1) that the two are adverse parties in a separate court case 2) Motl had previously engaged in unethical ex parte communication with Eaton in a separate court case, which resulted in filing a complaint against Motl’s license to practice law 3) Motl made comments to media outlets regarding the campaign complaint before allowing Eaton to formally respond to the merits of the complaint.

Attorney Jim Brown of Helena filed suit in August after Motl refused to rescue himself from ruling in an ethics complaint against Motl. In that case Motl refused to recuse himself, and then wrote a decision finding himself not guilty of any wrong doing in the third person.

In arguing the case Brown noted that, “In absolving Motl of any wrongdoing based on Motl’s investigation of Motl, Motl’s decision goes so far as to refuse to file the complaint for public record — a highly unusual step, and one without precedent in the law.”

Next Steps

In the case to keep Motl in office, the plantiffs have asked the court to take immediate action keep Motl in place until a final determination is made.

A date for hearing has not been set.

Commissioner of Political Practices Timeline:

  • Former Governor Brian Schweitzer appointed Jenifer Hensley, a political operative and wife of a Democrat state legislator, to serve as Commissioner of Political Practices when the term of Dennis Unsworth expired in 2010.
  • In 2011 the State Senate failed to confirm Hensley and she left office in May 2011.
  • Gov Schweitzer appoints former Democrat legislator Dave Gallik to serve the remainder of Hensley’s term in May 2011.
  • January 2012, Gallick reigns amid ethics allegations.
  • March 2012, Jim Murry, former head of the AFL-CIO is appointed by Governor Schweitzer.
  • In 2013, Mr. Murry did not seek confirmation from the State Senate and left office in May.
  • Governor Bullock formally appointed Mr. Motl to the remainder of the term in June 2013
  • Motl was confirmed by the State Senate during the 2015 legislative session.


By: Big Sky Headlines staff