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Montana’s political enforcer, set to leave office at the end of the year after prosecuting a series of high-profile cases against Republican lawmakers, may be eligible to serve until 2019.

The extension depends on an unfamiliar and possibly erroneous interpretation of the law guiding appointments of the state’s commissioner of political practices — a small quasi-judicial agency with investigatory powers.

The key question is: Was current Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl appointed to fill a vacancy in former Commissioner Jen Hensley’s six-year term that started in 2011, or did Motl start his own six-year term?

State Sen. Pat Connell thinks it’s the latter, and he told Motl so in August during a “casual conversation.”

“After he told me he was leaving in December, I said ‘that’s silly, you just got confirmed in 2015,’” Connell said Friday. “Well he read me the chapter and verse on it and I said, ‘Well hey, you didn’t replace a confirmed commissioner.’ I don’t even remember the last confirmed commissioner, and it seems to me that (the law) is vague.... Hensley wasn’t confirmed, that’s the issue.”

Motl has won judgments against former Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich and several other Republican lawmakers for illegally coordinating with the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliated groups — earning him the ire of conservatives around the state.

On Friday, Motl said he expects to leave the commissioner’s office on Dec. 31, 2016, and plans to recommend a replacement after Election Day.

Motl wouldn’t say who he would name, but a likely candidate would be Jaime McNaughton, an attorney who joined the commissioner’s office in 2013. Motl told the Chronicle that McNaughton has “performed admirably and remarkably well as legal counsel” for the office.

But he did take Connell’s interpretation to Andy Huff, the governor’s chief legal counsel. If the governor used Connell’s interpretation of the law, Motl might be able to stay longer.

“That decision is not mine to make,” Motl said Friday. “It’s going to be an interpretation of law.”

The Chronicle asked the governor’s office on Friday when they expect Motl’s time in office to be complete and explained Connell’s theory.

By way of reply, Bullock spokesman Tim Crowe provided a copy of Motl’s letter of appointment, sent to the secretary of state in 2013. It clearly states that Motl’s “term will end January 1, 2017.”

Asked to clarify if Hensley’s appointment started the clock on a six-year term, Crowe said, “I cannot answer that because that term and appointment was done in the Schweitzer Administration.”

But would Motl serve until 2019? Again, “It would be inappropriate for me to say that,” he answered, but he does like the post.

“I have been honored to the full extent you can be honored,” he said. “I respect it. It’s an important job and I feel honored to be in the job every day I’m allowed to.”

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Troy Carter can be reached at 582-2630 or tcarter@dailychronicle.com. He’s on Twitter at @cartertroy.

Troy Carter covers politics and county government for the Chronicle.

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