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Grandstanders grill Motl on his way out the door

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The Montana Supreme Court didn't waste much paper in answering the question that's dogged the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices for nearly two months. On Feb. 1, justices issued a four-page ruling declaring that Jonathan Motl's term as the state's political cop ended Jan. 1, stating that it would be "inappropriate" to change the date set by Gov. Steve Bullock nearly four years ago.

Motl will now remain in office only as long as it takes Bullock and state lawmakers to agree on his successor. But Motl's termed-out status didn't stop Republicans from hammering him during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last Friday. The barrage began with Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who was there to introduce a bill eliminating the Office of Political Practices. He did so in the blustery, informal tone of a salesman, dramatically taking his glasses off and putting them back on no fewer than seven times. "I'm sorry," he said at one point, pausing for a drink of water. "I'm so darn excited to bring this bill I can't even contain it."

Using words like "totalitarian" and "hyper-partisan," Skees challenged the efficacy not only of Motl's stint as commissioner, but of the office as a whole. The solution he suggests in House Bill 340 would divide the duties of the office and transfer them to two other agencies: the Secretary of State's office in the case of campaign reporting, and the Attorney General's office in the case of enforcement. Skees apparently couldn't resist a joke at Motl's expense on Friday, claiming that his bill, if unsuccessful, is "a sure way to get the Skees team investigated by the Office of Political Practices in 16 months" when he's up for reelection.

Skees didn't reply to a request for information supporting his assertion that "there hasn't been a Democrat or a Democrat committee investigated and fined or found guilty" by Motl. A cursory review of OPP decisions shows that the Montana Democratic Party paid at least $550 in three violation settlements in 2014.

Republicans on the committee quickly picked up Skees' line of criticism. Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, repeatedly dragged Motl to the microphone to grill him about a radio interview he'd conducted just prior to the 2016 election. Rep. Barry Usher, R-Helena, asked whether a failure by the state Senate to confirm his replacement would mean another two years of Motl.

"Under existing Montana state law, that is a correct interpretation," Motl replied, maintaining a cool, analytical frankness throughout the nearly three-hour cannonade. "And I would presume and hope and expect that the Senate won't do that."

So far three people have applied to step into Motl's shoes: former Billings City Commissioner Michael Larson, former political practices investigator Robert Hoffman, and Jaime MacNaughton, acting attorney for the OPP. Candidates will be screened by a four-member bipartisan legislative committee, submitted to Bullock for nomination and, barring any hiccups, confirmed by the state Senate before session's end.

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