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How a lawsuit put Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl's retirement on hold

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Jonathan Motl never planned to linger past Dec. 31 in the small blue house on Helena's 8th Avenue. At that point, he figured he'd pack up his desk, bid farewell to the converted office space and put his term as Commissioner of Political Practices behind him. He'd have more time for fishing and more time for gardening with his wife. But a lawsuit filed against Gov. Steve Bullock last week has halted Motl's exit. For now, anyway.

"I wait until the courts tell me what to do," Motl tells the Indy.

The suit, filed Dec. 21 by former state Sen. Christine Kaufmann, outgoing Sec. of State Linda McCulloch and several others, alleges that Bullock misstated the end date of Motl's term years ago and that Motl should serve through June 10, 2019. It's yet another take on a question that's been kicking around Montana for months: When did Motl's current term actually begin?

The last person to serve out a full six-year term in the commissioner's office was Dennis Unsworth, from 2005 to 2010. Motl is the fourth commissioner to serve in the seat since Unsworth's departure. What isn't clear is whether Motl stepped into the tail-end of a term started in 2011 by Unsworth's successor, Jennifer Hensley, or started the clock afresh when Bullock appointed him in May 2013.

Motl says he always believed it was the former, at least until state Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, raised the specter of a longer term in conversation with Motl last fall. "To tell you the truth," Motl says, "I think almost everybody assumed I had six years."

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When the Bozeman Daily Chronicle posed the question to Bullock in October, his office responded with a copy of Bullock's original appointment letter. The letter clearly states, "Your term will end January 1, 2017," seemingly suggesting that Motl was appointed to complete the remainder of an active term. The governor's office hasn't elaborated on the issue since.

"We have received the lawsuit and are in the process of reviewing it," a spokesperson for Bullock told the Indy via email. "The Governor's Office believes it is important for the courts to weigh in on the issue."

Motl isn't offering any guesses on how that court battle will play out. If he does get more time, there's no shortage of work to be done, particularly when it comes to lobbying and ethics complaints. The office has yet to complete the adjudication process on roughly 35 campaign practice decisions, work that will rely heavily on office attorney Jaime MacNaughton, he says. Motl adds that he was preparing to float MacNaughton's name as a possible replacement. Until the courts say something, though, he won't need one quite yet.

"This is the end of my career," Motl says. "I'm here. So if I work for another three months, that's fine. If I work for another two years, two and a half years, that's fine too."

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The original print version of this article was headlined "End times"

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