Jonathan Motl

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl answers questions on the witness stand in a campaign finance trial in Helena in this March 2016 photo.

AP photo

Montana's commissioner of political practices will remain in office beyond the expiration of his term Sunday until a state judge rules on a lawsuit seeking to keep him in office for a full six years.

District Judge Kathy Seeley approved an agreement Wednesday allowing Motl to disregard the Jan. 1 termination date set by Gov. Steve Bullock when he appointed Motl in May 2013. Bullock appointed Motl to complete the final three years of a six-year term that also included three other Democratic appointees who were not confirmed by the state Senate.

The lawsuit filed earlier this month argues that Motl's appointment and confirmation creates a new six-year term that should expire in mid-2019. The plaintiffs are Democratic Sen. Christine Kaufmann, departing Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, former Republican Rep. Jesse O'Hara, Al Smith of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and a group called Montanans for Experienced Judges.

The agreement between the plaintiffs' lawyer, James Goetz, and Bullock attorney Andrew Huff noted the difficulty of arranging a court hearing during the holiday season prior to the Jan. 1 expiration of Motl's term. The deal approved by Seeley agrees that the governor won't enforce the term's expiration and that Motl will stay on until the judge makes a ruling on the plaintiffs' argument or decides to dissolve the agreement.

The commissioner's office enforces campaign and ethics laws, and has been the subject of intense partisan wrangling when past appointments were made. Jan. 1 marks six years since the last confirmed commissioner, Dennis Unsworth, left office after a full term.

Motl said Friday that he wants to stay on, and that the case will affect the appointment of future commissioners.

"I think this issue is extremely important to determine and it's bigger than my term," he said. "I'm going to do what is best for this office and for future commissioners."

State Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said Friday he’s taken aback by the decision and said Motl should step down while the courts work through the lawsuit.

“It seems to me that the court action entirely, the lawsuit, the judge’s decision, is a gross manipulation of the law and it undermines the credibility and integrity of that office and the person in that office.”

Thomas said Motl’s appointment by the governor and confirmation by the senate both have an end date of Jan. 1, 2017.

“The commissioner accepted this appointment that ends on 1/1/17. He agreed to the resolution that was adopted by the Senate confirming him that his term ends on 1/1/17 and he has the audacity to ignore all this?”

Thomas added there’s “zero credibility” to a claim the lawsuit makes the failure of the Legislature to approve appointees between 2010 and 2013 erodes public confidence in the office.

Following Unsworth, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Jennifer Hensley, who was not confirmed by the Senate. Schweitzer appointed Dave Gallik to the post in 2011, but he resigned amid a dispute with the commissioner's staff over running his law practice out of the state agency.

Jim Murry was Schweitzer's final appointment in 2012, and he resigned a year later because he did not expect to be confirmed by the Senate.

Motl was appointed by Bullock to serve out the remainder of the six-year term that began with Hensley's appointment. Republicans opposed the Helena lawyer's appointment because of his past work on state ballot initiatives and past donations to Democratic candidates, but he was confirmed in 2015 when eight GOP senators broke ranks to vote with 21 Democrats.

Since his appointment, Motl and his staff have cleared a backlog of campaign complaints, created regulations requiring more campaign disclosures by candidates and brought a high-profile case against a sitting legislator, Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman.

A jury found that Wittich took illegal campaign contributions from an anti-union organization and its affiliates.

Wittich denied any wrongdoing and appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, where the case is pending.

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