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Gov. Interviews Commissioner Of Political Practices Nominees

The sign outside the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Office
Steve Jess
The sign outside the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Office

Governor Steve Bullock and members of his staff interviewed candidates for the job of Montana’s next Commissioner of Political Practices, this afternoon.

Governor Bullock spent a little over ten minutes in each of his interviews with Ben Tiller, an attorney with the State Auditor’s office, and Jeff Mangan, a former Democratic legislator.

The governor, his chief of staff, and chief legal council took turns asking Tiller and Mangan a handful of questions about their opinions on Montana’s campaign finance disclosure laws, approach to enforcement of these laws, and ideas for improving the work of the office.

The commissioner of political practices oversees Montana’s campaign, ethics and lobbying regulations.

The governor hasn’t announced a timeline for his selection.

Whoever the governor picks for the job will replace Jonathan Motl, whose term ended in January.

The governor’s pick must be confirmed by the state Senate.

You can read a transcript of the interviews below.

Gov. Bullock's interview with Jeff Mangan:

Steve Bullock:Why do you want to be commissioner?

Jeff Mangan: This isn’t my first rodeo. I was interested in 2010 when it came up and ever since I left the legislature I’ve had, I’ve always had, an interest in government. Probably because my father was involved. I loved the idea of a citizen's legislature. I loved the idea of Montanans getting together to work for Montanans. And this particular office is one that should be respected, should be, I think revered. Sometimes politics, even though political is in the name of the office, people tend to forget that and things tend to veer off political wise. I don’t want to see that happen and I think that happened a bit in the last decade. I see it happening a bit now, not because of any actions of the current commissioner but because of perception and those kinds of things, leading up to a point where there is a bill to abolish the office. That is concerning to me. If I can step in and lead this office for that next term, I believe I can quash those concerns. And raise it up so both parties can see that office for what it should be, a good resource for them and for the people and the state of Montana.

SB: What is your opinion of the Citizens United decision?

JM:Corporations aren’t people. So it’s not something that I support. I was glad to see that after that happened out great state went and challenged it and I’m not particularly pleased with the outcome of that. But the people and the state of Montana spoke on that and corporations aren’t people. And those dollars, we need to know where that money is coming from. And I think not only our state, our folks, our representatives, all of them need to work to change that and get the law back to where it should be. And what the people have already decided.

What do you think of the Disclose Act and what do you think of campaign disclosure generally?

The Disclose Act, the primary purpose is to maintain an open government and avoid secret and other nefarious problems in elections and make sure elections are secure. And when we don’t know, in at least my opinion, and probably the opinion of many, when we don’t know where that money is coming from, how can we always know that our elections are indeed secure? And when you have transparency and openly everyone can see what is going on. And there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. Whether that is corporations exploiting who their donors are with those other group. Whether that be unions. So I think it goes on both sides. Unions and those other groups need to disclose where their money is coming from. And that is the whole purpose of the Disclose Act.

SB: What do you think of Montana’s contribution limits?

JM: When I ran and I was office it was around $110 or $160 or something like that. I’m not a fan of continuing to raise limits. I’ve always been public about that. Particularly in Montana, small state, small community, we know our neighbors, we have a citizen's legislature for example, for a reason. We know who are city council men are. We know who are school board members are. We know who we elect. And the more money we put into it, the more I think that people tend to forget, ‘oh I don’t need to go out and meet my neighbor,’ and ‘I don’t need to go out and explain why I want to do this job.’ It takes away from that. The more we raise these limits the more money becomes an issue. And I think we have to be real careful with how we do that. As long as it is managed I think it is fine, but again, it’s more money getting into the process. And more reason for a strong focus on the Commissioner of Political Practices.

SB: What will be your approach to enforcement of Montana’s campaign finance laws?

JM: We have laws for a reason. I think I’ll be fair. I don’t want to use the word aggressively enforce, but enforce the laws that we have. And insure that folks know how serious money is and these issues are when folks try to skirt those issues. Things are going to happen when someone forgets to sign a form or it’s a day late and things like that. Those things can be taken in stride. But if there are constant attempts to disregard the laws of the state of Montana and the integrity of this process the office needs to be firm but fair in enforcing existing laws.

SB: Do you have ideas for improving the functioning of the Commissioner’s office or Montana’s campaign finance laws?

JM: I think the office can do a better job of educating and education in general. Whether that is through the media or just being more transparent itself. And addressing things proactively rather than reactively. The office can become more an office of political practices than the commissioner of political practices, one person , when the whole office has a purpose and a reason. That would be my goal, that folks in 6 years to refer to the office of political practices, not to the commissioner. And if we do that I think people will be successful and people will understand what we do, what the laws are, understand why decisions are made, when they’re made and how they’re made. Instead of, perhaps, what happened this session where a torch was taken to it because we don’t like something, or what the perception was, of what the office did. There may or may not have been reason for that. But there certainly was the perception of that. We can't have those kinds of things coming up year after year, session after session. So, I would like to see more work put into education from that office and be proactive and use things like social media and other things to make sure that is done. And it can be done without spending any additional money.

SB: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about yourself?

JM: I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. It’s a political. I’m sure people are going to say he’s a Democrat, he ran as a Democrat. And I am a Democrat. And I haven’t suddenly become a Republican or changed that. But I think that both Republicans and Democrats know, from the folks I’ve worked with all across the state, especially from the messages I’ve received in the last couple of weeks since the nominations were put forward, people know I am fair. I’m not a political person at all. I work hard. And that is exactly the attitude I would take into the position. I love government. I love the policy process. I love the people here, and I think people see that. At least I hope they do. I think I have always conducted myself in an ethical and responsible manner. Integrity is important to me and integrity to the office and to our political system. Probably more than any other state, Governor you know this because that’s what you told the supreme court, is unlike any other state in the nation and we have to continue that proud tradition. And this is one of those offices that will make sure that will continue.

Gov. Bullock's interview with Ben Tiller:

Steve Bullock: Why do you want to be Commissioner of Political Practices?

Ben Tiller: I think that I’m uniquely suited to do this job. Throughout my life I’ve kind of remained non-partisan, but I’ve also been very interested in making impartial decisions too. I ultimately I would like to sit on the bench someday. As a lawyer, our number one duty is to pursue the truth. That’s the preamble of the laws of professional conduct. And I think that we also want our politicians to do the same thing. Ensuring there’s an equal playing field helps ensure that our politicians are pursuing the truth, that debates happen honestly, and our citizens can make informed decisions. I think that this position is not an opportunity for me to be involved in that process, which I feel is very important, in a manner which I can actually provide something equal: Impartiality, and good enforceable decisions.

SB: What is your opinion of the Citizens United decisions?

BT: It’s the law of the land as it sits. And it’s contrary to the policy that Montana passed legislatively in 2012. We have decided that as a state and a body politic we would like to think more about individuals making speech than corporations. Of course, the understanding in Citizens United was that corporations are groups of people and therefore they have First Amendment protections. I know that that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, and that’s understandable, because we want to be able to empower people with our democracy. We are a democracy governed by the people. So the more that you allow large influence, especially with money, which is considered speech, the more it tends, in the public’s eye, to dilute their value in that system. So we are obligated to follow Citizen’s United. Western Tradition Partnerships group proved that. But I think that in the spirit of following that, we can still recognize what people in Montana want, and that is for their voice to be heard in the political process.

SB: What do you think of the Disclose Act? What do you think of campaign finance disclosure generally?

BT: Generally I think that campaign disclosure is important. I think it’s fundamental to transparency of our democracy. No one likes to be persuaded by someone who they don’t know who’s doing the speaking. And I thought a lot about it over the last couple weeks, and I think the reason is you can’t debate someone who you don’t know. Our democracy is based on debate. We want both sides to talk about divergent viewpoints so we can find the best way to move our society forward. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t know who’s talking to you, you can’t have a debate, which makes your speech less meaningful. So I think disclosure of contributions is very important. I think that Montanans especially demand that they know who is influencing their thoughts, their opinions and their election.

Specifically with disclose act, again, it’s hard for me to go back and look at specifically which portions of the law were the disclose act and which weren’t. But generally speaking, my review of the statutes over the past month and a half, two months, I think that we do have a good foundation for adequate disclosure. I would like to see someday, I think it’s possible for individuals to be able to make larger contributions. If you look at the state, nationwide we are very low contributions, and especially for statewide elections with the amount of travel and everything else that’s involved. I think there’s definitely room for upward movement there. To the extent that PACs and other large organizations are able to consolidate their funding, individuals having more opportunity to participate and add their financial backing does help counteract that.

SB:What will be your approach to enforcement of Montana’s campaign finance laws?

BT: Follow of the law. That law has been put in place by people who we’ve elected, and we have to trust that that is the voice of the people. I look at the way the system is set up, and you hear the criticisms, we all hear the criticisms, of how this office is set up. But we’re a unique state. We have 1,005,000 people, and that’s a lot of political districts, and there’s a lot of speech going on, so you have to have an office that can react to all of these different elections and all of these different viewpoints. And the way this office is set up, although some don’t see it as ideal, is a very logical and elegant solution. The fact that we have strict timelines for review of complaints helps move the process forward. The fact that there’s statutory judicial review helps ensure due process. And so, as commissioner, I will look at these in a very timely manner, because the last thing I want is for my decisions to affect the people’s voice to the election. So I will, I will very closely and very quickly and I warned my wife, we had some very lengthy conversations about this pursuit that there will be times when we’re working long hours. There’s 60 days before an election, and hopefully 120 days after are a little slower, because we want to make sure people’s voices are heard, that they’re heard appropriately, and that this office is not influencing those elections. I mean that is not the role of this office. This office is to make sure the people are the ones influencing those elections.

SB: Do you have ideas for improving the functioning of the Commissioner’s office or Montana’s campaign finance laws?

BT: Well I spoke earlier about the opportunity to allow for some more funding from individuals. I think there are a lot of people out there who would appreciate that, where they could feel that my contribution is actually meaningful given the other sources of contributions out there. As far as the office goes, I talked about the current setup of the office and how it does work. You could set up a committee, but the problems with setting up a committee are budgetary. You have --

SB: So by committee, you mean like in replacement?

BT: As a replacement for the commissioner. I mean, we’ve heard those talks. And I think it’s infeasible, given the amount of work that we have and the amount of people, it just doesn't make sense. As far as funding, is always central to this. I do think that this office operates best when you have a staff attorney and you also have a commissioner who is also an attorney. Commissioner Motl has said it, many of the hearings I’ve observed that 75 percent of his work is legal work, and he does have a full time attorney at this point. So I think that maintaining that really does help with the efficiency and avoiding the previous backlogs that we’ve seen. As far as efficiencies go, I think I’d have to go in and look at the staff and who does what. And also really analyze the workload. That’s one thing from the outside that’s really hard to see, how does the work flow. So it’s obviously one of the first things I would do is make sure our people are doing everything they’re capable of doing so it’s operating as efficiently as possible.

Hearings examiners, to the extent that there’s budget for hearings examiners, when it comes to an ethics complaint, I think that would be helpful. I think it helps separate the office a little bit from some of the potential for allegations have been prior. Obviously you have to do everything in your power to both appear impartial and be impartial, and I think that could be an improvement. There could be some funding for when you do have something like that, so there’s another person involved. I mean, the Department of Labor has standing hearings examiners that you contract out, and I think that would be an improvement. I think that would help avoid some of the controversy, for lack of a better word, that we’ve seen over the past couple years.

SB: So our limits were initially set by, initiative, and those were struck down. And what commissioner Motl did was revert to old limits in our system, if that makes sense.

BT:2002 limits?

SB:Yeah, so right now, it’s $1,990 for gov, county gov, $320 for … So what should those limits be?

BT:Oh gosh. You know, having not run a campaign, I don’t know exactly what the costs are in the state of Montana. I do know when I think about how much it does cost just to travel the state to hunt and fish, yes it’s gotta be, you got to have a lot of people, and there’s just not a lot of people in these districts to really get to a meaningful amount. I think nationwide the average for individuals to a Senate, state House or Senate race, is about $2,000. And that seems about right. There’s obviously a handful of states that have lower, I think four or five states have a lower limit than ours. And so, maybe getting closer to that national average is not a bad thing.

SB: Is there anything you would like us to know about yourself?

BT:I think one of the things I haven't touched on throughout this process but I think is very important to this office, there are seven full time employees there. And if you talk to the people I’ve worked with in state government, outside state government, I think you’ll find that I will be a very good administrator as well. I’m not only bringing a sharp legal mind and a strong work ethic, but I think you’ll find those seven employees really do enjoy working with me, and I'll make sure that they continue to enjoy the work they do.

Thank you for the opportunity.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.