Montana’s commissioner of political practices basically serves as the state’s top political cop. The commissioner oversees campaign finance and ethics laws. It’s a complicated, sometimes controversial job.
In this interview with MTPR's Edward O'Brien, Montana’s brand new Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan says he believes most Montanans are glad the position is there:
Jeff Mangan: They want to know what money is going into an individual’s campaign," Mangan says. "Are they being transparent? Are they letting the folks know that their dollars are coming from their neighbors, PACs, or other political committees; how they’re funding their campaigns when they’re talking about how they’re going to get things done, and who they may be chatting with.
Edward O'Brien: Mangan replaces former political practices commissioner Jonathan Motl, who’s term has expired. Mangan says he's been learning the ropes.
JM: Just right in, start the job. It's been an interesting few days, but very productive, and learning a lot.
EO: What have you learned? What's the most important thing you've learned?
JM: I guess, understanding how much work this office does; between the number of candidates the number of committees, the number of lobbyists, the number of issues that the office deals with on a daily basis is more than I expected and thought. It's a very busy office, the phone is ringing all the time.
EO: Tell us about the resources at that office's disposal; what's your budget, how many staffers do you have, etc.
JM: There a seven staff including myself. And that includes basically three compliance specialists; an investigator; an administrative, kind of oversight, special projects person; and an attorney plus myself. Budget for the biennium, a little over $1 million. But in a nutshell, seven folks working hard every day.
EO: Are you keeping the same staff or is there a house-cleaning going on?
JM: Oh no, keeping the same staff. The transition has been very smooth, we've got a good little team over there.
EO: Why did you apply to be the next commissioner of political practices? It's a big job, it's a complicated job, and it's also a controversial job. Who wants the headache?
JM: [chuckling] Good question. There was a piece of legislation that wanted to do away with the commissioner's office. I felt, there's something going on here. We can't have people thinking this office isn't necessary. And that kind of spurred me to throw my name into the ring. I've had good relationships with Democrats and Republicans and other parties. If this office could be seen in an independent, non-partisan way from both sides, then perhaps I can take it to a place where these kinds of issues don't come up again where someone would want to completely rid the state of that office. I know they wanted to attach it to an agency and all those things, but on the face of it, eliminating the office of commissioner of political practices was my main reasoning for throwing my hat into the ring.
EO: Mr. Motl's tenure there was dogged most of the time by Republican accusations that he was a partisan, that he unfairly targeted GOP lawmakers and groups. What's your honest assessment of his record there? Were those charges of political bias, was that fair, was it warranted?
JM: I don't believe they were fair or warranted. I think he was the right person at the right time. It was a difficult time, had to make some difficult decisions on both the Republican side and the Democrat side and you're tackling very tough issues that kind of leap to the forefront. He had to take those arrows in order to move forward and move the state through that very tumultuous time. Now people understand why Montana cares so deeply about dark money and why Montanans care so deeply about transparency. Compared to say five years ago, four years ago, we have a cleared docket. Folks understand the importance of enforcement. Folks understand the importance of transparency and we're moving into an area where people understand that they need to do A, B, C, and D in this manner. Part of that is because of the work of the commissioner's office.
EO: How will your workflow differ from Mr. Motl's? Will you be aggressively looking for campaign or contribution violations, or do you just have to sit back and let the complaints come to you?
JM: I can't see myself going out and aggressively looking for violations. I don't think that's necessarily the purpose or the role of the commissioner. The office is there for a reason. We have very strict protocols set up for folks to report and organize. When that process happens and everybody does what they're supposed to do, we will know who the bad actors are.
And I'd like to see the commissioner's office be more active on social media and just be more of a presence out there for the average Montanan to find out about campaign finance and transparency, and if they have any questions that's not necessarily a phone call or to the website that they can go out and find and understand and just be part of that entire process. So, continuing to work on transparency and accessibility is going to be a major goal of mine and the office moving into these next couple years.
EO: Jeff Mangan is Montana's new commissioner of political practices. Mangan was a Democrat during his tenure in the state legislature from 1999 to 2006. He later joined the Great Falls Airport Authority, first as a commissioner, then as its chairman.