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PSC kills censure of commissioner in email controversy

The Montana Public Service Commission in Helena.

Pictured from left, Montana Public Service Commissioners Roger Koopman, Bob Lake, Brad Johnson, Randy Pinocci and Tony O'Donnell meet in Helena in this March 2020 file photo. 

A motion by a member of the Public Service Commission to deliberate censuring a fellow commissioner died Tuesday morning after failing to get a second.

Commissioner Roger Koopman of Bozeman brought the censure motion against Commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River. Koopman has accused Pinocci of accessing his state emails without his knowledge, including several that were of a personal nature, and disseminating them. The emails were posted on the conservative website Northwest Liberty News, although the personal emails were later removed.

Pinocci, who abstained from Tuesday’s discussion, has denied releasing the emails, although an investigation by the Billings Gazette indicated that he had made multiple requests for Koopman’s emails. The investigation also found that PSC communications director Drew Zinecker had access to the emails.

While most state emails are considered public records, there are some exemptions for ongoing legal matters and minimal personal use.

It remains unclear who disseminated the emails publicly but Koopman indicated through his censure motion that he believes Pinocci’s accessing of the emails and other statements about him violated the PSC’s ethical code of conduct. The censure is not punishment or retaliation, but an effort to enforce a standard of conduct at the PSC, he said.

“When a commissioner steps far outside of these reasonable limits and violates these boundaries, we ignore those violations to our peril,” Koopman told the commission. “We are saying, in effect, that no boundaries and standards exist, that we really don’t apply any ethical discipline to ourselves – that we essentially do not have any standards of professional conduct that the public can rely on.”

Relationships between Koopman and his fellow commissioners deteriorated over the last year as he has been outspoken over issues ranging from commission spending to it regulation of utilities. The commission is charged with regulating monopoly utilities such as NorthWestern Energy in the interests of balancing companies’ business interests with those of “captive” ratepayers.

Tuesday’s motion, if passed, would have set up a future deliberation where both Koopman and Pinocci testified and the remaining three commissioners, Brad Johnson, Bob Lake and Tony O’Donnell, would then vote on censure. But when Johnson called for a second, the rest of the commission remained silent, causing the motion to die.

In a scathing email sent to media following the PSC meeting, Koopman accused the PSC and Johnson specifically of putting political loyalties and grudges ahead of the commission’s business.

“It is one thing to lock arms on public policy questions, while pretending to be listening to all sides,” Koopman wrote. “The Johnson majority does this all the time. It’s quite another to be so politically-driven (and resentful of an outspoken member like me) so as to refuse to even view the evidence that addresses an extremely serious set of ethics-related allegations against another commissioner.”

The non-vote was an attempt to sweep the accusations under the rug, he said.

“It amounts to thumbing their noses at the public they serve, while lowering their respect among the staff that serve them,” Koopman wrote. “It is an appalling example of moral cowardice, and an apparent inability to express even a modicum of moral indignation.”

Koopman further accused the three commissioners of having made a “previous agreement” to abstain from seconding his motion. Such an agreement would violate Montana’s open meeting law if made outside of the public process.

Johnson denied that such an agreement took place in an interview Tuesday, saying “there was absolutely no violation,” of the open meeting law and that the commission is exceedingly careful to avoid a quorum outside of public meetings.

“Commissioner Koopman made his opening statement, it died for having a lack of a second,” Johnson said. “Clearly a majority of commissioners didn’t feel the censure motion should proceed, at least at this time.”

Pinocci told the Great Falls Tribune Tuesday that Koopman has lost touch with reality and should resign.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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State Reporter/Outdoors Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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