Jonathan Motl

Jonathan Motl, the former Commissioner of Political Practices, provides testimony against at the 2017 Montana Legislature in this file photo.

A federal appeals court decision this week to strike down a state law mandating ethics complaints about state officials be confidential will not affect a related case pending in Gallatin County District Court.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined all ethics complaints against all state government officials must be public, going beyond a 2017 ruling by a lower court.

In the local case, Bozeman lawyer Matthew Monforton accused former commissioner of political practices Jonathan Motl of illegal involvement in a 2016 legislative campaign. Monforton and Motl said the case is still going forward.

The two cases stem from an ethics complaint Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, filed with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices in September 2016.

In the complaint, Tschida alleged that Gov. Steve Bullock and former Department of Commerce Director Meg O’Leary inappropriately used a state airplane to fly to a Paul McCartney concert in 2016 and unethically accepted an invitation to sit in former University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s box to watch the show. The complaint was later dismissed.

By November 2016, the commissioner’s office hadn’t ruled on the complaint, and Tschida emailed it to other legislators as part of discussions about how Bullock may have misused state resources.

Commissioner Jonathan Motl then told the media Tschida had broken state law by releasing the confidential complaint.

In response, Tschida filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Helena, alleging the state law violated his First Amendment rights.

Because the federal case took a few years to resolve, Monforton also filed a related ethics complaint against Motl with the commissioner’s office before the statute of limitations ran out.

The commissioner’s office dismissed Monforton’s complaint in February. He appealed that decision to Gallatin County District Court. Tschida is not involved in the Gallatin County case.

Monforton and Motl said the federal court case doesn’t affect the District Court case because they address different legal issues. A hearing has yet to be set in that case.

In the local case, Monforton accused Motl of engaging in illegal election advocacy through the statements he made to the media as commissioner in 2016.

Monforton said the local lawsuit “intends to make clear that Motl made bogus threats of criminal prosecution to Rep. Tschida.”

Motl disagrees.

“I’m not sure how the commissioner’s office could function if any statement a commissioner makes within 60 days of an election about those running for office is illegal and influencing the election,” Motl said.

Monforton represented Tschida in the federal case, which was filed in 2016. The U.S. District Court in Helena determined in 2017 that complaints against elected officials should be public but those against unelected officials should be confidential. The ruling this week is broader.

“Rep. Tschida and I are pleased with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that rejected the commissioner’s attempts to suppress information,” Monforton said.

However, Motl said the federal court decision is unfortunate because potentially personal and inaccurate information from ethics complaints can now be made public. He added that politically motivated ethics complaints might now be filed as a campaign tactic, which he said is “a peril for civility.”

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

Perrin Stein is the county, state and federal government reporter for the Chronicle.

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