Montana GOP Director Says Commissioner Issued “Biased” Mailer Decision, Should Have Recused Himself
Montana Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl is being accused of an unequal handling of the law in his responses to two "voter guide" mailers in a 2014 Montana Supreme Court race.
The first mailer, apparently sent out by researchers at Dartmouth and Stanford, drew "hundreds" of complaints and has been accused of inserting partisanship into a non-partisan election, using The Great Seal of the State of Montana without permission, and posing as an official mailer from the Secretary of State's office. Although Motl has not ruled on this case yet (a full ruling is expected in 2015), Motl did negotiate an apology from the two universities involved in the study.
Montana Republican Party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood, who filed the complaint for the second mailer, argues that the state needs to force a group called The Montanans for Liberty and Justice to issue an apology as well.
The second mailer strongly supports candidate Mike Wheat and also poses as a "voter's guide." Greenwood says elements of the flyer including the coloring, and inclusion of the Secretary of State's website make it look like a mimic of an official document in a way that breaks Montana law.
Motl already issued a decision on the second mailer, but Greenwood says Motl's decision is evidence of "bias."
"There are some vital pieces of information that Commissioner Motl left out of that response," Greenwood said. "He did find in favor of Montanans for Liberty and Justice, but what he never tells the people, is that his own law firm is a contributor to Montanans for Liberty and Justice. So, Mr. Motl just ruled in favor of an organization that his own law firm supports."
The law firm in question, Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson, Deola PLLP, still includes Jonathan Motl on its website. Greenwood points out that this law firm "gave a staggering $10,000 to this liberal PAC" and argues that Motl should have recused himself from the decision because there is a conflict of interest for Mr. Motl to make a decision in this case.
"I am listed on the website as 'on sabbatical,'" said Motl. "The reason for that is this: I am not confirmed yet by the Montana Senate. Should I be confirmed by the Montana Senate, and I want to be confirmed, I will immediately be off that website as 'on sabbatical,' but if I am not confirmed they will probably want me back. I am completely severed in every legal sense from that law firm."
In defense of his decision, Motl says the two mailers are "markedly different," and that "when you put the Stanford/Dartmouth mailer side-by-side" there is no question. One can be said to attempt to mimic [an official mailer from the Secretary of State's office], the other does not."
Motl points to the use of the Seal, the use of partisanship in a non-partisan race, and the amount public outcry over the first mailer as distinguishing characteristics. He also hints that the
"This seems to be a pretty consistent approach by a group of people that are challenging Montana's campaign finance laws, to file something asking me to recuse myself," Motl said. "Now here's the problem with that, we are a very small office with a very little budge. If I recuse myself and take myself out of the decision making process then we substitute in outside, paid council, which incredibly slows down the decision making process and makes it more costly. From my position, I have an obligation to the citizens of Montana to resolve these complaints as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible."