HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte’s choice to be Montana’s top political cop has already started his new job, as the state Senate prepares to consider his confirmation.
Chris Gallus, an attorney who lives in Helena, has been at work in the Commissioner of Political Practices’ office since Jan. 23 – several days after Gianforte appointed him to the position. He says he’s been trying to get up to speed quickly.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Gallus told MTN.
The Commissioner of Political Practices oversees one of Montana’s smallest state agencies – with funding for six employees but several positions currently open. However, they have a big task: overseeing Montana’s campaign finance disclosure and ethical standards of conduct for legislators, public officers and state employees, and investigating campaign and lobbying complaints.
“I think the office serves a vital capacity for that in terms of gathering the information – getting that information out or accessible to the public – and then when there are problems with that, enforcing the the laws to make sure that what we're doing is transparent,” said Gallus.
Gallus is a Butte native who has lived in Helena for about 20 years. He previously served as legal counsel for the Montana Chamber of Commerce, then started his own legal practice – often working on campaign-related matters, like cases involving ballot measures. He also previously worked as a lobbyist, most recently for the Bennett Law Office in Missoula.
Many of Gallus’ clients have been conservative groups and individuals. In 2020, he represented an organization challenging COVID mandates (https://www.ktvh.com/news/new-group-seeks-to-challenge-covid-mandates-and-defend-affect-businesses), and in 2018, he represented a campaign (https://www.ktvh.com/news/2018/05/07/five-initiatives-trying-to-get-on-montana-ballot-how-many-will-make-it/) to amend the state constitution to ensure only U.S. citizens and people who have been residents of Montana for at least 30 days can vote.
Gallus acknowledged he’s frequently worked with conservative clients, but said he also has experience working with Democrats from his years in Butte and his time as a lobbyist. He pledges he can and will serve impartially in the role.
“Balance and fairness is critical to this position, and certainly I fully intend to conduct of the affairs of the office and myself in that in that way,” he said.
The previous commissioner, Jeff Mangan, was a former Democratic state lawmaker, but won broad bipartisan support for his confirmation. In 2017, the Senate approved his appointment 49-1.
Gallus praised Mangan for his work in areas like public education and outreach – helping campaigns understand the rules to reduce the need for complaints later on.
The Montana Senate will now consider whether to confirm Gallus for a full six-year term. Senate President Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said senators are already getting to know him.
“The governor is going to put somebody forward that ultimately he wants to see confirmed, and somebody that's reasonable – and I think the governor has done that,” Ellsworth said. “We've had that nomination come and actually speak to Democrats, Republicans – both sides of the aisle in the House and in the Senate – and we're encouraging those discussions to continue to happen.”
Ellsworth said he believed Mangan had done a fair job as commissioner.
“That's what I would hope to continue, and I know the governor wants to continue down that same path as well,” he said.
When Gallus applied for the position, some Democratic leaders expressed concerns. Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena, the House minority leader, opposed moving his nomination forward to the governor.
“The reasons that Democratic leadership couldn't advance Mr. Gallus' nomination were based on his involvement defending clients who engaged in questionable political practices,” Abbott said in a statement. “While those concerns remain, we expect that Mr. Gallus will conduct the responsibilities of his new office with fairness and impartiality."
Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, the Senate minority leader, was not on the nomination panel that initially considered Gallus last year. He said he’s already had a visit with Gallus and found him to be forthcoming with all questions. He said Democrats want to make sure the commissioner is committed to nonpartisanship and ensuring campaigns run fairly and in compliance with the law.
“Every conversation I've had with Mr. Gallus, he's reinforced his commitment to that intent,” Flowers said. “As we go through the confirmation process, I'm sure he'll be asked over and over again how he'll approach his administration of the Commissioner of Political Practices. And with that, I think we'll be able to make a really informed decision.”
Gallus’ confirmation hearing hasn’t been put on the schedule yet, but it should happen in the coming weeks.