The results aren’t vastly different from the first State Integrity Investigation, in 2012, in which Montana scored 68 — a D+ — and ranked 31st among the states. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
Blatant graft in the late 19th century, when affluent copper barons brazenly bribed state legislators, made a lasting impact on Montana’s political sensibilities. When citizens awoke to the influence of corporate money, “they called it as they saw it: Corruption,” said former state solicitor and University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone in a 2012 lecture. In 1912 voters passed a ballot initiative called the Corrupt Practices Act, banning direct corporate election spending.
But when the U.S Supreme Court decided in 2012 that its Citizens United ruling two years earlier applied to Montana, the justices struck down the act as a First Amendment violation.
Partly as a result, Montana’s campaign finance watchdog, the commissioner of political practices, has since been inundated with complaints filed against political committees and corporations. These complaints allege that candidates broke Montana’s remaining election laws by “coordinating” spending with PACs and that companies and nonprofits have failed to properly register as PACs and disclose their spending. The commissioner accepted a record 81 complaints last year. Heightened public awareness may be playing a role in the uptick.
With a barebones staff of seven, the current commissioner made 86 decisions resolving 107 campaign finance complaints in 2014, compared to 10 to 30 decisions per year under earlier commissioners. Many allegations, some part of a complaint backlog dating to 2010, have been valid. For example, after the commissioner filed a complaint in district court, the judge found that former Republican representative Joel Boniek exhibited “quid pro quo corruption” in taking $9,060 in undisclosed contributions from the nonprofit Western Tradition Partnership ahead of the 2010 election.
The enhanced enforcement is not universally popular. In 2015, the House budget committee attempted, but failed, to cut funding for the commissioner’s only full time attorney. The office remains too under-resourced to audit campaign finance forms.
Lobbying and ethics enforcement
The commissioner of political practices also oversees ethics and lobbying, but the office’s modest size means those areas have not enjoyed the same scrutiny as campaign finance.
Montana has a fairly comprehensive ethics code. And while severe ethical violations are rare, it’s hard to know if stronger oversight would expose a greater volume of problems. The commissioner has investigated one ethics complaint since 2012.
Actual auditing of lobbying disclosures and personal financial disclosures is cursory, at best. In addition, many financial disclosures do not provide enough detail to assess conflicts of interest. In Montana’s citizen legislature, conflict of interest is often unavoidable and the state’s ethics code favors participation over recusal.
The House and Senate also have ethics committees, but the House panel hasn’t met since 2003 and the Senate committee last met in 1999. Some violations surface anyway, such as when a state senator’s aide resigned this year after colleagues discovered he was also registered as a lobbyist.
There have only been five lobbying complaints to the commissioner of political practices since 2001. Perhaps there’s no reason to complain or maybe lobbyists are staying mum. "What has transpired is this informal, unwritten agreement that if you don’t complain about me I won’t complain about you,” said Steven Brown, who worked as retained counsel for seven commissioners of political practices.
There’s also no disclosure requirement at all for executive branch lobbying. Lobbying oversight “is in substantial need of reform,” Brown said.
But convincing the legislature of that seems nearly impossible, he added. Montana’s part-time legislators rely heavily on lobbyists for information and institutional knowledge.
Access to information
Montana has clear right to know and open meetings laws, and it’s become easier over the years for citizens to access budget information, audit reports, legislative hearings and state Supreme Court records online.
But those trying to dig deeper can meet resistance. Technological infrastructure for many records remains poor, and citizens and journalists denied records can face expensive and long judicial appeals.
Some forms of access have improved in recent years. The administration of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock launched a government transparency website for state spending and salary data in 2013. In 2014, the state Supreme Court also reversed its 2006 decision requiring an individual to have a direct personal interest in a matter before suing an agency for information. This year, the legislature passed a bill requiring that some state boards “publish” audio or video of their meetings online.