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Lawmakers deadlock on political practices commissioner

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The office of the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. PHOTO BY ELIZA WILEY

By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS

A panel of four state legislators last week reached an impasse over who should become Montana’s next commissioner of political practices. Now, the task of narrowing the field to a single candidate falls squarely on Gov. Greg Gianforte, whose office has yet to provide a glimpse of any frontrunner.

The goal of the Legislature’s COPP nomination committee on Dec. 28 was to screen the pool of applicants vying to replace Jeff Mangan and agree on at least two names to forward to Gianforte for his consideration. In all, five candidates appeared before the committee in person or via Zoom to answer questions about their past political affiliations, lobbying activity and understanding of the commissioner’s responsibilities in state government.

Chris Gallus, a Helena attorney, has represented numerous conservative interests over the years, including the now-defunct political nonprofit Montana Growth Network and, more recently, a grassroots group that opposed former Gov. Steve Bullock’s COVID-19 restrictions. Gallus told the nomination committee that his work has resulted in his name appearing in a dozen or so complaints submitted to past political practices commissioners, but he has never directly been the subject of such a complaint. Asked about his opinion of Montana’s current campaign contribution limits, Gallus said it wasn’t the commissioner’s role to set policy but rather to defend and enforce laws passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

That position was later seconded by Brad Johnson, who billed his candidacy for the position as a continuation of his “long-standing passion” for Montana elections. Johnson, a Republican, currently holds a seat on the Public Service Commission, the quasi-judicial body that oversees Montana utilities, and previously served as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009. Johnson told the committee that his first foray on the Montana ballot was in 1990, when he challenged former Democratic Congressman Pat Williams. Johnson also disclosed that he was the subject of an ethics complaint in 2016 after he used state resources to pen an op-ed criticizing an independent PSC candidate. Mangan found that Johnson violated state ethics laws and fined him $3,000.

“I’ve learned a great deal since 2016, and I would tell the committee that whether or not the commissioner’s finding was absolutely correct, it was certainly an error in my judgment to pen the op-ed at all,” Johnson told the nomination committee last week.

One other candidate disclosed a somewhat extensive history in partisan politics. Debbie White-Goetze, a former contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, told lawmakers that she worked for Alaska Republican Sarah Palin on her gubernatorial and vice presidential campaigns and for Republican Joe Miller during his 2010 effort to unseat Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Despite that background, White-Goetze said she felt capable of suspending her personal political beliefs as commissioner and relying on what she described as extensive experience in “executive leadership.”

“I know that this is a nonpartisan position,” she said. “I feel that I can represent that very well.”

The remaining two candidates boasted far less politicized histories. Layne Kertamus, a former Helena resident now living in Utah, acknowledged that he has contributed to Republican candidates and conservative causes in the past, but added that he voted for former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer twice. Kertamus also served as vice president of insurance operations for the Montana State Fund in the late 2000s.

“While I think of myself as a Republican, I’m not hardwired to that view,” he said. “My understanding is that this role is non-denominational. I take that quite literally.”

Megan Martin characterized herself as the only truly nonpartisan applicant to appear before the committee. Over the past decade, she said, she’s worked as an auditor at both the Montana Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation, and, as a result, is extremely familiar with state law. But when asked, Martin said she’s never been affiliated with a political party or political action committee, nor with any lobbying activity at the Legislature.

“I think that’s why I’m a little bit best suited for this position,” she said. “I’m not political in that sense.”

After concluding the interviews, the committee’s two Republicans — now-former Senate President Mark Blasdel and now-former House Speaker Wylie Galt — proposed advancing all five candidates to Gianforte. The more candidates the committee could give the governor to screen and interview, Blasdel said, “the better.” But the motion fell flat with Democratic minority leaders Sen. Jill Cohenour and Rep. Kim Abbott, who introduced their own motion to advance only Martin and Kertamus to Gianforte’s desk.

“A couple of people admitted to being pretty hyper politicized in the past, and it’s difficult for people who are in the political realm to feel safe working with somebody who’s been hyper partisan in the past,” Cohenour said.

Blasdel and Galt opposed that motion, leaving the committee deadlocked. As a result, all five candidates were forwarded to the governor’s office. Absent any committee recommendations, Gianforte is also free to consider additional applicants. His office did not provide details Tuesday on when he expects to name his final pick, but did offer the following statement:

“The process for appointing the next commissioner of political practices will continue to follow the protocol as outlined in law, and the governor will carefully consider well-qualified candidates to serve in the position.”

Once named, that appointee will have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

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