U.S. House candidate Heenan repped enviro groups that sued Colstrip power-plant owners

Posted at 5:20 PM, May 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:51:39-04

HELENA – Democratic U.S. House candidate John Heenan has been touting his record as a “consumer lawyer,” representing people wronged by banks, insurers and other corporate bad actors.

“I have the privilege of representing widows when insurance companies deny their claims, people suffering from cancer when insurance companies deny their claims,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “I’m on the side of Montanans that get abused by those corporations.”

But the Billings attorney also represented a pair of environmental groups when they sued the owners and operators of the Colstrip power plants in 2013 – a lawsuit that led to a 2016 settlement calling for two of the four plants to be shut down by 2022.

Heenan told MTN News Thursday that his involvement in the case was minimal, that he didn’t make “one penny” off the suit and that he’s been involved in many other significant cases on behalf of individuals victimized by corporations.

And when asked earlier this month whether the Colstrip case might hurt him during the general election, if he wins the June 5 primary, he said no.

“I stand up for people against corporations that violate the law,” he said at a May 3 debate in Helena. “And in the circumstances of that case, there was a corporation that couldn’t comply with the Clean Air Act.”

Heenan is one of five Democrats competing for their party’s nomination to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte this fall, and two other third-party candidates. He’s one of the front-running candidates in the crowded primary.

Absentee voting started two weeks ago and Election Day is June 5.

Some of his opponents have suggested that Democrats don’t need a candidate with “skeletons” that could hurt them this fall.

Jake Brown, campaign manager for candidate Grant Kier, said Heenan’s connection to the Colstrip lawsuit likely won’t play well among voters in eastern Montana.

The other Democrats in the primary are Kier, a former land-trust director from Missoula; former state lawmaker Kathleen Williams of Bozeman; and Bozeman lawyers Jared Pettinato and John Meyer.

Heenan has made his legal career a centerpiece of his campaign, and said he’s happy to talk about significant cases he’s won or had a part in. They include:

  • A $2 million award in 2015 for a Billings couple whose bank wrongly foreclosed on their home and sold it, after they had paid cash.
  • A $2.7 million judgment against GEICO Insurance, after it refused to pay benefits to a Billings woman whose husband was killed by an uninsured driver in 2011.
  • A case involving 17 retirees from NorthWestern Energy who had their pensions illegally terminated. The jury awarded them $21 million.
  • A settlement against pay-day lender LoanPoint USA, which was charging Montanans exorbitant interest rates. The company agreed to forgive customers’ loans and pay $233,000 to at least 406 Montana customers.

In the Colstrip lawsuit, the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club sued the operators and utility owners of the four coal-fired power plants in southeastern Montana in 2103, accusing them of failing to comply with clean-air standards.

Heenan said he and attorney Roger Sullivan of Kalispell filed the initial action, but that it was soon handed off to lawyers for the two environmental groups, who handled the bulk of the case.

Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy settled the case in 2016, agreeing to shut down Colstrip plants 1 and 2 by 2022. The newer Colstrip plants – 3 and 4 – are not subject to the settlement.

A federal judge last year awarded $1.57 million in fees and costs to lawyers for the environmental groups, but Heenan said he didn’t receive any of that money.

He also said that Talen Energy officials have said in court papers that they had been planning anyway to shut down the older Colstrip plants, because they’re becoming uneconomical.