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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers Discuss Policy Violations By Utility Regulators

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The two newest members of the Montana Public Service Commission told a legislative committee Monday they've spent their first five months on the job working to improve the operation, performance and culture of the office that regulates monopoly utilities.

Commission Chair James Brown told the Legislative Audit Committee he has accepted the resignation of PSC administrator Mandi Hinman. Brown said Hinman directed another staff member to backdate a document to explain an expense that was charged to a state procurement card as the agency was being audited. The staffer declined to sign the document and instead told legal staff.

The audit being discussed Monday found some commissioners were traveling without documenting the state-related business purpose for the trip, at least one upgraded from coach to comfort class on a flight to Washington, D.C., and travel costs were incurred without having another commissioner sign off on the trip, as is required under PSC policy. The audit covered two fiscal years ending in June 2020.

A vast majority of the problems with commission travel were not because the PSC didn't have adequate policies, Brown said, but because commissioners were not following the policy.

Brown told the committee that the commission chair has to sign off on travel by the other four commissioners, but that when Brad Johnson was chairman he did not have another commissioner sign off on his travel, as required. Johnson was asked to return his procurement card, Brown said.

Johnson, who is now vice chair of the commission, did not participate in the audit committee meeting.

Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth told Brown that “on both sides of the aisle we're very highly disappointed,” with the previous actions of the PSC. The committee decided to have the agency come back before them in October to report on its progress in addressing the issues raised in the audit.

Democratic Sen. Mary McNally asked if any commissioners had offered to reimburse the agency for the unapproved or upgraded travel.

No, Brown said, he was told the purpose of the travel was appropriate. However, he suggested the committee could write a letter to Johnson and ask him for an explanation.

Brown said staff morale was low when he arrived at the PSC and he apologized to the staff for the culture of the agency over the past several years.

The PSC plans to hire an executive director to oversee all internal administrative matters in response to the audit, Brown said.

Another new commissioner, Republican Jennifer Fielder, said she has been leading a planning effort to address issues raised by the audit, working to resolve an issue over new software that was not working, and interacting with staff to understand their jobs and issues with the agency.

A previous investigation found former Commissioner Roger Koopman was the target of email leaks to a right-wing webcast and false police reports made by other commissioners or staff and that there was a pattern of bullying and harassment at the agency.

The emails released to Northwest Liberty News in January 2020 included Koopman’s complaints about travel spending and his perception that other PSC members did little work, along with some personal emails.

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