HELENA – Top legislative leaders on Friday will interview five candidates seeking to become Montana’s next political practices commissioner.
The commissioner oversees Montana’s campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws, and is the arbiter in complaints filed with the office.
After an early, informal vote after reading the applications and resumes of the 11 applicants, the top four legislative leaders decided to interview five people, according to Susan Byorth Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division. They are:
• Ellen Bush of Helena, the former director of a nonprofit group, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Montana and most recently a legislative committee secretary.
• Robert Hoffman of Helena, the former investigator for the political practices commissioner for three years who is president and co-owner of a desktop publishing and graphic design business in Butte.
• Jonathan Motl of Helena, an attorney and partner in the Helena law firm of Morrison, Motl and Sherwood.
• Dan Ritter of Lakeside, a real estate agent who was the sergeant-at-arms in the Montana Senate in the 2013 Legislature.
• Colleen Urquhart-Fillner of Helena, a consultant and freelance writer who worked as a policy adviser to Gov. Marc Racicot.
Legislators on the nomination committee are Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings; House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers; Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte; and House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.
These leaders will recommend from two to five people for the job to Gov. Steve Bullock. He can choose anyone he wants, regardless of whether they applied for the job.
Bullock must appoint a new commissioner within 30 days of the vacancy.
The person appointed will serve out the rest of the commissioner’s six-year term, which ends Dec. 31, 2016. The job pays $57,699 annually.
The new commissioner will succeed Jim Murry, who held the job the past year and did not seek confirmation.
The new commissioner will be the fourth since Dennis Unsworth’s term expired at the end of 2010.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Jennifer Hensley to succeed Unsworth, but the Senate in 2011 never voted on her confirmation. Schweitzer then selected former state Rep. Dave Gallik of Helena, but he resigned last year after allegations by his staff that he used the office for his private law practice work. Schweitzer picked Murry to replace Gallik.
All five people being interviewed told Lee Newspapers State Bureau on Tuesday that they would work full-time as political practices commissioner if selected.
Motl said he would give up his law practice if picked.
“It is a full-time job,” Urquhart-Fillner said. “It’s a big job and an important job. I think it requires the full attention of whoever is appointed.”
All but one of the five people being interviewed has donated to state political candidates, according to a search of the database of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Those who had donated said it wouldn’t affect their ability to issue impartial rulings.
Motl has donated nearly $6,800 since 1992. Discounting the money he gave to nonpartisan judicial candidates and a ballot issue campaign, he gave slightly more than $5,000 in partisan state and legislative races, all to Democrats. That includes $790 to Bullock in his races for attorney general and governor.
“My interest has always been issue-focused, not candidate-focused,” Motl said, citing his interest in “good government.”
Ritter has given to candidates from both political parties. He gave $615 to Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and $1,100 to Bullock, a high school classmate, in his races for attorney general and governor.
Urquhart-Fillner donated $100 to former Gov. Judy Martz and $165 to the Montana Republican Party. She said she also made small donations that didn’t show up in the database to Bullock when he ran for attorney general and to Democrat Mike Cooney when he ran for governor.
Hoffman donated $35 to Democrat Pam Bucy in her 2012 race for attorney general.
Bush, meanwhile, said, “As a former journalist, I’m reluctant to make donations to political candidates.”
The applicants who weren’t selected to be interviewed were: James Ashmore of Helena, a business analyst in the state Department of Administration; Jeffrey Barber of Helena, government relations director for the Montana chapter of Nature Conservancy; Debra Brown of Winston; treasurer of the Montana Republican Party; Russell Hart of Missoula, a law student at the University of Montana who works as a hearings officer for the Missoula Housing Authority; Joel Krautter of Missoula, a law student; and Gary Moseman of Great Falls, retired managing editor of the Great Falls Tribune.