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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Montana Public Service Commissioners Disagree Infighting Impacts Duties

Three seats are up for reelection on the Public Service Commission.
Three seats are up for reelection on the Public Service Commission.

A member of the council that regulates Montana energy utilities tried to officially censure a fellow commissioner this week. The two commissioners disagree over whether infighting stops them from doing their regulatory responsibility.

The motion to censure is one in a series of indicators that Montana’s five Public Service Commissioners are fighting behind closed doors. It’s an internal conflict that has become more and more public in recent months.

Commissioner Roger Koopman of southwest Montana drafted the motion, which failed May 5 without another commissioner to second it.

If it had passed, the motion would have served as a warning against Commissioner Randy Pinocci of northeastern Montana for alleged spying, intimidation and slander.

Koopman writes in his motion that Pinocci accessed his work emails without following due process.

Koopman also says that Pinocci made false allegations against him to law enforcement, state agencies, the news media and PSC staff.

“I feel personally violated," Koopman said.

According to a February staff memo from PSC Counsel Justin Kraske, someone inside the PSC accessed Koopman’s emails through requests to the IT department. Kraske writes the proper route of requesting state employees’ emails is through a public records request, so that the legal department can ensure released documents comply with state law.

Koopman’s unredacted emails were made public when the political blog Northwest Liberty News posted them in January.

The following month, Pinocci and then-PSC spokesperson Drew Zinecker spoke about them at length on the outlet’s podcast. PSC counsel says they cannot confirm or deny that Zinecker is still a spokesperson with the commission due to an ongoing investigation.

Pinocci says that he requested emails because staff came forward with complaints about Koopman.

“I have no choice but to explain really what’s going on," Pinocci told Northwest Liberty News.

In April, YPR spoke with Koopman, who said he does feel like infighting gets in the way of the commission doing its job as a regulatory body.

“The PSC has to operate congenitally and has to operate in a way that’s very transparent to the public but that’s transparent among commissioners. There’s never a reason to be secretive from one commissioner to the next, and it’s gotten to that point. This sort of petty, silly politics," Koopman said.

Pinocci told YPR, also in April, he does not believe conflicts between commissioners have distracted the PSC from serving its regulatory role.

“I really have never went into a meeting where we have to make a decision and face this issue, so it is my belief it hasn’t affected anything that we’ve had to vote on or decided on," Pinocci said.

Pinocci on May 5 moved to release all requested emails except those related to ongoing agenda items or emails that are under legal review. The commission voted that motion down four to one, with Pinocci the only vote in favor.

PSC attorneys say they’ve been fielding a flood of requests for commissioner emails in recent months from the public. Attorneys told commissioners at their regular Tuesday meeting about the difficulty and cost of collecting and reviewing those emails.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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