Horse sense

As Montana's top campaign cop, Dennis Unsworth isn't destined to make a lot of close friends among state politicians and political parties.

That's how it is, and that's how it should be for Montana's political practices commissioner. Like his predecessors, Unsworth must make the tough calls when political parties and candidates file ethics complaints against their political opponents and question the truthfulness of their advertising against them.

One side usually winds up pleased with the verdict and the other not. It's a thankless job, sort of like refereeing sporting events. And who cheers for the ump or the ref, even though they're just doing their job?

So it's gone for Unsworth and his predecessors in what must be Montana state government's tiniest office, with a just a handful of employees.

Yet it's a vital office in Montana's politics because of its role in deciding ethics complaints and gathering and reviewing campaign finance and lobbying reports.

This office, located in a small house a block north of the Capitol, is where statewide and legislative candidates and others must file the regular reports showing who donated money to their campaigns and how it was spent. Likewise, groups that hire lobbyists must submit reports showing how much money they spent trying to influence the Legislature.

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Unsworth, a former long-time public information officer for the state Transportation Department, in 2006. He was one of three finalists recommended by a bipartisan group of legislative leaders to fill the vacant job.

Soon Unsworth will be ruling on an ethics case filed against Schweitzer by the Montana Republican Party.

A hearings officer appointed by Unsworth already

recommended that Schweitzer be found guilty and fined $750 for violating a state ethics law. Unsworth has yet to say whether he will accept the recommendation by the hearings officer, William Corbett, a University of Montana law professor.

Corbett ruled that Schweitzer violated state law by using state funds to produce a public service announcement, featuring himself, for radio stations. Three years ago, Schweitzer signed into law the bill that prohibited state elected officials from spending state money on public service announcements after they have filed for office.

But Schweitzer, anxious to move on, already sent a $750 personal check to Unsworth's office in an attempt to bring the case to a close, even though he disagrees with Corbett's recommendation and there has been no ruling yet. Schweitzer told the Associated Press that no state funds were spent on the ads, but he was being penalized because his communications director helped him record the spot.

Unsworth also disclosed that a top Schweitzer administration official, senior counsel Eric Stern, had improperly called him three times and dropped off a document, all outside of the formal hearing proceedings. The commissioner said he should have admonished Stern earlier, the AP reported.

If Republicans had any misgivings about Unsworth's appointment, these probably will dissipate if he backs up Corbett's recommendation.

Assuming Unsworth adopts the hearings officer's recommendation against Schweitzer in this case, he will have split his rulings on cases filed by the Republican Party against the governor since 2007.

Last year, Unsworth threw out a GOP complaint that accused Schweitzer of taking an illegal corporate contribution when he attended the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., at the expense of the Democratic Governors Association. In that ruling, Unsworth said "there's no basis to conclude" that the association's payment of Schweitzer's expenses were an attempt to influence a Montana election.

Being commissioner is a thankless job, especially when both political parties and their candidates flood his office with complaints in the waning days before the election. Most of these late complaints are just part of a blatant political strategy intended to hurl mud on an opponent late in a campaign.

And when Candidate A files a complaint against Candidate B, Candidate B returns fire with a complaint against Candidate A.

Almost invariably, various political practices commissioners have ruled over the years that in these 11th hour complaints that one candidate's misrepresentation of another's record was not intentional.

The commissioner's office is slowly moving to give political candidates the option of filing their campaign finance reports electronically instead of submitting thick paper documents. That would make campaign finance information far more accessible to voters.

This project has moved at a snail's pace over several commissioners' tenures over the years. Officials say it's not as easy to set up as it sounds.

But someday it will be completed, and Montana voters ultimately will be the winners from electronic filing. Plus, it will ease the filing burden on candidates and save some trees too.

Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena.

He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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