Chris Gallus interviews with a nomination committee to be the next Commissioner of Political Practices on Dec. 28, 2022. He was appointed to the position by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Jan. 19, 2023. (Photo via screenshot from MPAN)
Finding a Commissioner of Political Practices is like searching for a creature that doesn’t really exist. Ask politicians on either side of the political spectrum and they’ll tell you they want someone who is familiar with the law, understands the political process, and is fair.
That all sounds good. But what they really want is someone who understands politics but is disinterested. In other words, a political person who really doesn’t care about politics.
With few exceptions, when it’s come time for Montana to select a new commissioner – which happens every six years – one political party complains that the nominee is too partisan or their background is suspect.
When a legislative committee deadlocked earlier this year when it came time to forward names to Gov. Greg Gianforte for his consideration, that left the choice up to him, and he selected Helena attorney Chris J. Gallus, a longtime lawyer with considerable experience.
However, Gallus’ nomination, which has so far been smooth, has produced discomfort with Montana Democrats who have quietly wondered about his experience, which includes a heavy dose of representing right-leaning clients.
“The reasons that Democratic leadership couldn’t advance Mr. Gallus’ nomination were based on his involvement defending clients who engaged in questionable political practices. While those concerns remain, we expect that Mr. Gallus will conduct the responsibilities of his new office with fairness and impartiality,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, who was on the committee that deadlocked over forwarding names to the governor.
Gallus, though, defended his position, saying that he’s worked for clients on both sides of the political aisle, and that representing clients doesn’t mean that he agrees with their position.
Still, Gallus’ record shows litigation in many political causes, which has caused some concern in liberal circles, especially since the state’s executive and legislative branches are overwhelmingly Republican, leading some to question whether he’ll be able to decide political cases impartially.
“The COPP serves, and will continue to serve, Montana citizens without regard to political philosophy. There is also a process in law for recusal and appointment of deputy commissioners when those situations develop,” Gallus told the Daily Montanan. “As an attorney, I understand these rules and I have additional rules placed on me. We also have a contract with DOJ Agency Legal Services to handle situations involving conflict of interest, and the COPP has on numerous occasions engaged outside counsel.”
Gallus was legal counsel to the Montana Growth Network, a conservative group that had a long-running dispute with the COPP office over nearly $80,000 in undisclosed contributions in a Montana Supreme Court race that saw attorney Ed Sheehy lose to current Justice Laurie McKinnon.
Montana Growth Network was linked to many larger, wealthy donors who wanted to see the state’s stream and public access laws changed. Former state Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, organized the group and it raised nearly $1 million, at one point. Priest said several years later that Montana Growth Network was meant to begin a conversation about the judiciary and public access laws.
The group also spent thousands of dollars donating to candidates, all Republicans.
“My role in representing clients, including MGN, is never to set or implement their policies. Whether I agree or disagree with certain positions is generally irrelevant,” he said. “My role is typically to provide them legal advice with respect to the laws.
Gallus was also a part of a high-profile case in which the state Supreme Court concluded that the Republican Party had run a slate of Green Party candidates, but who were not necessarily a part of the Green Party or not the candidates selected by the party. But organizers, backed by the GOP, circulated petitions to get those candidates on the ballot, leading to questions of whether any group can take over a political party. Political scientists said the attempt was part of a concerted effort by Republicans to pull votes away from Democrats.
Gallus explained that his involvement in the case was to represent the parties who signed the petitions while it was circulating, not necessarily defend the actions of the GOP.
“The individuals wanted to intervene as petition signers and express to the court their own views with respect to the case. As signers, they knowingly signed and understood the contents of the petition. They did not feel duped. They did not believe they were victims of fraud,” Gallus said. “This was an important perspective to make known to the court, and one they believed would not receive particular attention if they did not. They had every right to do so. I was proud to represent them.”
Gallus also worked on a ballot measure that would have added a clause to the state Constitution that said non-U.S. citizens cannot vote in elections, something that critics, including the editorial board of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, decried as redundant.
“This particular proposal added clarity to existing law, which was viewed as necessary,” Gallus said. “It ultimately would have been the collective decision of Montana voters to decide if the clarification was necessary.”
And Gallus also represented a group of citizens, some federal employees, who challenged the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination mandates when they were proposed.
Gallus said the Montana Constitution, Article II, Section 4 establishes a unique provision in law found in no other state. That portion provides for and protects “individual dignity.”
“While it is undeveloped as a matter of case law in Montana, Justices (James) Nelson and (Terry) Trieweiler have commented as to the provision’s application and importance,” Gallus said. “The litigation … involved posing the question to a neutral tribunal whether the federal executive could essentially ignore this important state constitutional provision via a mandate, and whether that mandate should at least, in fact, take the form of laws enacted by Congress before having such an impact.”
He said that even though Montana has a unique provision in its constitution, the issue was being litigated throughout the country, in addition to Montana.
“I am proud that many federal employees still have their jobs that were once severely threatened,” he said.
However, Gallus’ career includes more than just political work. He served Butte-Silver Bow County as the assistant chief executive from 1989 to 1992 and the Director of the Butte-Silver Bow Business Development Center.
From 1991 to 1996, he worked on lobbying and economic development with the Montana Energy Research and Development Institute before moving to become legal counsel and director of government relations for the Montana Chamber of Commerce.
In 2000, Gallus struck out on his own to work in private legal practice. He said that business has focused on government relations, nonprofit organizations as well as campaign finance, lobbying and ballot issues.
Gallus also touted his experience as a volunteer working on a proposal to transfer Hell Creek State Park from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the Montana Little Shell Chippewa Tribe. His other volunteer work includes Montana Mobile Medical, the Montana Veterans Association and the Little Shell Tribe.
“When I represented a client’s particular position or point of view, I approached others with civility and understanding,” he said. “I firmly believe that Democrats, as much as Republicans, understand I will approach this position with fairness and fidelity to the law, on a case-by-case basis, based entirely on facts following thorough investigations.”
Gallus’ nomination to the office requires the confirmation of the Montana Senate, controlled by Republicans. As of Wednesday, no hearing on his confirmation had been scheduled, but a spokesman for the Senate Republicans said that Gallus is continuing to meet with members in preparation for a hearing.
“Senate Republicans have been meeting Mr. Gallus and reviewing his qualifications and vision for the office. Senators are looking forward to beginning the formal confirmation process for the Commissioner of Political Practices, an important role that requires fairness, experience, and professionalism,” said Kyle Schmauch, spokesman.
Editor’s note: This story was amended on Feb. 6 to correct the fact that Ed Sheehy, who was beaten by Lori McKinnon, was never elected to the Montana Supreme Court.
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