Federal Judge Rules Against Montana ‘Confidentiality’ Rule Shielding Elected Officials in Ethics Complaints
In the heat of Governor Steve Bullock's 2016 reelection campaign, an ethics complaint was filed with the Commissioner of Political Practice's office by Missoula-area legislator Brad Tschida. The ethics complaint involved both Governor Bullock and Commerce Department Director Meg O'Leary and accused them of improperly using the state plane, but former Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl decided that the names of Bullock and O'Leary should not be released under a 2001 state confidentiality statute. During an interview with KGVO news last year, Motl went so far as to threaten criminal charges against Tshida for disclosing the individuals behind the ethics complaint. This week, a federal court took up the matter and U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris gave a different view of the law. Tschida's attorney Mathew Monforton explains.
"The judge has made clear that there can be no criminal prosecution of Brad Tschida for disclosing that ethics complaint because he had a first amendment right to do that," Monforton said. "One of the issues that remains outstanding is whether Brad Tschida is entitled to seek monetary damages against Motl for First Amendment retaliation, which is what Motl did when he threatened a criminal prosecution of Tschida a week before the election."
Monforton claims Commissioner Motl misused his power to protect Governor Bullock, and alleges that Motl may have acted out of self-interest in delaying his decision on the ethics complaint until after the election.
"Former Commissioner Motl admitted in a deposition that he deliberately put that ethics complaint on the back-burner while he did other matters and Commissioner Motl also admitted that, at the time, he was trying to extend his term by asking Governor Bullock and Bullock's attorney to grant him an extension of his term, so it was a blatant conflict of interest," Monforton said.
According to Judge Morris' ruling it is now permissible to reveal the names of elected officials involved in an ethics complaint under the First Amendment, however, the old confidentiality rule still stands regarding non-elected state employees.
Although the ethics complaint against Bullock was eventually dropped by Commissioner Motl, Governor Bullock did settle a complaint involving inappropriate use of the state plane with current commissioner Jeff Mangan by paying a $3,000 fine. Interestingly, the source of the complaint against Bullock and O'Leary stems from reporting done by KGVO news concerning flight records and photographs surrounding a Paul McCartney concert that Bullock attended in Missoula via the state plane.