HELENA — In the wake of bitter internal disputes at the state Public Service Commission – and several media requests for documents related to the dispute – a PSC lawyer is asking a district judge to determine which records can be released.
The lawsuit, filed April 30 against two Montana newspapers, Billings-based Yellowstone Public Radio and three unnamed employees of the PSC, is asking the Helena judge to determine whether privacy interests of PSC employees prevent the release of certain records and emails.
The Billings Gazette, Great Falls Tribune and Yellowstone Public Radio have asked for a variety of documents related to the unauthorized public release this year of Commissioner Roger Koopman’s emails to Northwest Liberty News, a Kalispell website that posted the emails earlier this year.
Koopman, a Bozeman Republican who has feuded with fellow commissioners over mostly internal issues, accused Commissioner Randy Pinocci, R-Sun River, of playing a role in their release, without Koopman’s knowledge. Last week, he asked the PSC to begin censure proceedings against Pinocci.
The other four commissioners refused to consider Koopman’s request and Koopman told MTN News he’s dropping the issue for now – although he said he has consulted with lawyers about possible legal action.
But MTN News has learned that investigations are continuing at the PSC into whether and how certain PSC employees distributed Koopman’s emails to Northwest Liberty News – including some emails that had private, personal information.
Pinocci, who didn’t return a call seeking comment, said in a Facebook post last week that Koopman “continues to lie and be dishonest about his activities” and should resign, so that “District 3 may have a healthy and functioning representative to fight for their interests.”
Koopman’s term as commissioner representing District 3, which includes Bozeman and Butte, expires this year. Two Republicans, a Democrat and an Independent are running for the post.
Pinocci revealed in February that he had acquired some of Koopman’s office emails, without Koopman’s knowledge, but denied having anything to do with their public release.
Koopman told MTN News this week that other commissioners “have just decided they’re going to hear no evil, see no evil, and not do a thing.”
Commission Chairman Brad Johnson, R-East Helena, told MTN News this week that it’s “not appropriate” for the commission to engage in publicly disciplining its elected members.
The five-member PSC regulates electric, natural gas, telephone and other public utilities in the state.
In the wake of the Koopman email posting, news organizations began requesting commissioner emails and PSC documents related to its aftermath, including possible actions taken against employees at closed meetings. The PSC has not released some of those documents, saying it’s still reviewing whether that information is subject to privacy protections and not a public record.
Last week, Pinocci asked the full PSC to release emails that had been requested and should be “legally available” to taxpayers. The requesters include the two newspapers, Yellowstone Public Radio, Northwest Liberty News and state Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, who is challenging Commissioner Tony O’Donnell of Billings in the June 2 Republican primary election.
The PSC voted down Pinocci’s request 4-1, with Pinocci the only person in support.
The lawsuit filed by the PSC’s lead attorney, Justin Kraske, also revealed the extensive internal investigation and infighting that’s been consuming the PSC, related to Koopman’s emails and other issues – including calls to the Helena Police and Montana Highway Patrol by two unidentified PSC employees alleging that Koopman engaged in “threatening behavior.”
Koopman told MTN News that Pinocci and PSC communications director Drew Zinecker are the ones who called police and made false allegations about him, and that nothing came of it.
“I’ve never been arrested in my life or done anything violent,” Koopman said.
The lawsuit asks the court to “specifically determine, what documentation, if any” the PSC is required to disclose to those who’ve requested it.