HELENA, Mont. (CN) — Montana lawmaker Brad Tschida sued the state's commissioner of political practices to allow him to discuss an ethics complaint he filed against the governor with other lawmakers, in accordance with his First Amendment rights.
Tschida's federal lawsuit, filed Nov. 4, is part of a long-standing battle among Republican lawmakers, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, and Jonathan Motl, an attorney appointed by Bullock to police political campaigns and sanction those who run afoul of Montana's laws. It is one of nine lawsuits in which Motl is named as defendant filed in the last three years.
Tschida, a Republican representative, recently gave fellow legislators a copy of the ethics complaint in which he accuses Bullock of using a state-owned airplane to fly from Helena to Missoula to attend a Paul McCartney concert in August 2014, accompanied by state Department of Commerce chief Meg O'Leary.
At the concert, Bullock and O'Leary sat in a box with University of Montana president Royce Engstrom, who invited them to join him and his wife "in the president's box to watch Sir Paul McCartney as he performs his 'Out There' concert," according to Tschida's lawsuit.
"The use of the state-owned aircraft by Gov. Bullock and Director O'Leary, as well as their acceptance of seating in the president's box to attend the concert, constituted illegal gifts under Montana law that neither Bullock nor O'Leary disclosed to the public," Tschida claims in the lawsuit.
Tschida adds that Bullock's use of Andrew Huff, a state-paid attorney, to represent him in proceedings arising from the ethics complaint is illegal. Other elected officials facing complaints have hired private attorneys, Tschida said.
The only reason Tschida gave information to fellow legislators was that they're trying to convene a select committee to investigate possible corruption within the Bullock administration, the lawmaker said.
The case came to a head last week when Motl threatened Tschida with "severe penalties" for sharing the ethics complaint before it was thoroughly investigated, a violation of state law.
Meanwhile, the Great Falls Tribune received a copy of the complaint — which Tschida said didn't come from him — and ran a story about it on Nov. 2. The following day, Motl said in an interview that sharing the complaint could lead to criminal charges against Tschida.
"Motl's unconstitutional threats will continue to prevent Rep. Tschida (and probably other legislators) from performing their legislative oversight duty to hold Gov. Bullock accountable for his misuse of state resources," Tschida says in his complaint.
On Monday, Tschida requested a temporary restraining order and an order to show cause as to why a preliminary injunction should not be issued.
"Rep. Tschida wants to be able to discuss the evidence he has about Bullock's corruption with other legislators," Tschida's attorney Matthew Monforton said on Tuesday. "He can't do that without Motl and others accusing him of criminal acts, which is why we're seeking the TRO."
Motl wasn't able to be reached for comment Tuesday since state offices are closed due to the election. But he previously told the Associated Press that the lawsuit is "a pretty serious magnification of an ofiginal improper action by Mr. Tschida" and that Monforton "didn't improve Mr. Tschida's situation" with its filing.
"He made it worse. And now he's involved in it himself."
Motl has 21 days to respond to the complaint.
Also on Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell filed a motion to recuse himself, noting that he had a "potential conflict" but didn't identify what the conflict might be. Monforton didn't know why the judge was recused — he doesn't have to provide a reason — but said it's been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Brian Morris.
As of last week, polls showed Bullock in a tight race to hang on to the governorship. Tschida also is running for re-election in House District 97.
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