Factcheck: Were Montana Public Service Commissioners Wasting Taxpayer Dollars?

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It’s hard – if not impossible – to trust the reporting of Montana’s Legacy Press outlets when it comes to the Public Service Commission (or for that matter, any statewide agency dominated by Republicans). Reporters, like the Billings Gazette Tom Lutey, for example, pass well beyond the realm of actional slander when reporting on the organization. Staffed by five Republicans elected to statewide office with two officials in particular serving as standard-bearers for Montana conservatism – Randy Pinocci and Jennifer Fielder – the PSC has repeatedly become the whipping boy in Montana’s press.

BACKGROUND

Several issues have factored in to the legacy press’s unhealthy infatuation of muckraking of the Public Service Commission. Most notably, the now-former Public Service Commissioner, Roger Koopman, has filed a lawsuit against the PSC for the lawful release of his emails sent on public servers, which is protected under the Montana Constitution. The emails, which demonstrated – among other things – deep personal and family problems, infuriated the politician. And most recently, former Democrat Public Service Commissioner, Greg Jorgensen (D) has added fuel to the fire by criticizing his former colleagues from a grossly partisan perspective in liberal newspapers. And finally, an abysmally wrong-headed attempt to scuttle the public elections of the PSC by Senator Kary (R-Billing) made its way through the Montana legislature, but failed to pass. That bill, had it been successfull, would have appointed the PSC officials by the governor’s office. While many Republicans would have confidence in Governor Greg Gianforte (R), the idea seemed patently insane considering Montana has just experienced 15 years of a Democrat governorship.

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The Public Service Commission, originally founded to ensure that taxpayers and business owners were being treated fairly by monopolistic rail companies, now regulates monopolistic utility companies, who must seek permission from the PSC to raise utility rates on taxpayers. And thanks to the work of Commissioner Randy Pinocci, strong attempts this legislative session were made to allow the PSC to regulate Big Tech communications utilities, which would have protected Montanans from free speech violations.

THE SCANDAL

Knowing that the Public Service Commissioner is the least-expensive, smallest, and most conservative agency in state government, it has for some time been the target of the state’s leftward progressives. They have made attempts, in previous years, to audit and inspect the travel of Commissioner Pinocci, hoping to prove that he used public funds to travel the state, the nation, and internationally to support conservative principles at various conferences and events. Each attempt has proven futile, and Pinocci’s stewardship of public resources have been impeccable.

However, a recent audit of the PSC by the State Legislative Audit Committee has found demonstrable wrong-doing on the part of several employees of the small Public Service Commission. And although the financial mismanagement is relative chicken-scratch compared to the waste found regularly in Montana DPHHS or other departments, their foes in the press have had a relative field day.

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The largest financial concern of the PSC is that their expenses have been upwards of 100 thousand dollars in excess of revenue collected from the business they regulate. Of course, collecting those funds is not within the purview of the PSC. However, more concerning (to some) is the travel budget of the PSC. Five commissioners have to cover the entire state of Montana, as well as conduct business outside the state as it pertains to utility regulation.

Meanwhile, auditors found several irregularities, indicating mismanagement, by several employees. And although the mismanagement is less in financial dollars that it took for former governor Steve Bullock to fly his mistress to hear various rock concerts, for conservatives, no financial waste is acceptable.

HERE ARE THE REAL FACTS

Chiefly, the grossest act of alleged malfeasance was committed by Public Service Commissioner, Brad Johnson, who has indicated his desire to run for Montana’s new congressional seat. Other candidates reportedly include Washington Insider and disgraced former Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, and stalwart conservative standard-bearer, Dr. Al Olszeweski.

According to the report, Johnson upgraded his plane ticket on a business trip to Washington, which cost the taxpayers $1,414 dollars. Another commissioner, on the same trip, remained in coach, and paid only $515 dollars. The Billings Gazette, which has a vendetta against Commissioner Pinocci, failed to mention that it was Pinocci who escaped unscathed from any alleged financial misconduct, and came out of the audit smelling like proverbial roses.

Also reportedly, commissioners traveled 13 times without seeking approval through the necessary channels of funds acquisition. The report did not name names, but Commissioners Pinocci and Fielder – at the very least – were not guilty of a single infraction. Those who did travel without permission include Commissioner Tony O’Donnell and Brad Johnson.

The report also mentions that an unelected office staff member, Mandi Hinmann, backdated a receipt for $185 dollars to reimburse a heretofore unmentioned staff member who paid out of his own pocket for a business-related lunch. Although protocol exists to fund such out-of-pocket reimbursements, Hinmann reportedly did not follow that protocol.

It is important to note that the so-called “fabricated receipt” was indeed for a PSC-related and PSC-approved expense, rather ordinary in state government. However, because the necessary protocol has not been followed, Hinmann – who thusfar has provided excellent service to the PSC – has offered to resign her position.

Roger Koopman, the disgruntled former Public Service Commissioner, has previously complained about Hinmann’s salary. Reports and minutes provided to the Montana Daily Gazette indicate that Koopman personally voted for each and every pay-raise given to Hinmann due to her longevity at the PSC. Forming an odd alliance with a pro-choice and big government Democrat, Greg Jorgensen, the Great Falls Tribune and the Billings Gazette has had ample ammunition to impugn the entire PSC, which remains largely innocent of any wrong doing. Furthermore, the financial improprieties that exist, and quite tiny compared to waste unconvered by activists like Debbie Westlake in regard to other departments of state government.

The solution to ensure such improprieties do not happen in the future is a new office of bureacratic control being employed, called the “Executive Director of the PSC,” a non-elected position that will pay between 85k and 115k thousands (well more than the financial irregularities found in the audit).

The Montana Daily Gazette reached out to Commissioner Pinocci, who was found innocent of any wrong doing, who reported, “Past Democrat Public Service Commissioner Greg Jorgensen was completely unprofesssional in commenting in the newspaper article concerning the audit report before the audit report was heard.”

He went on, “Jorgensen claims that his years of experience, but one primary rule on custom of public trust is to remain silent until official hearings – and all the facts – can take place. In fact, Jorgensen asked the governor to replace one or all three commissioners with no facts of wrongdoing, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Interestingly, sources have told Montana Daily Gazette that Commissioner Pinocci approached Jorgensen in the hallway an explained he was “out of line.”

Pinocci is of the opinion that Jorgensen is upset that all members of the PSC are Republicans, and wants to cede control of the state entity to the governor, who is largely not considered as conservative as Pinocci or Fielder, and who Jorgensen hopes will be replaced by a Democrat in the next gubernatorial election. If this occurred, Jorgensen would surely be in the running for the appointmen to again serve the PSC, despite the will of the voters.

Ultimately, it appears that the only actions that should be reasonably taken are a censure of both Brad Johnson and Mindy Hinmann (both of whose service has thusfar been commendable). But in the end, rest assured, Montana’s liberal newspapers will do everything possible to coalesce with former commissioners Koopman and Jorgensen to strip away the voters’ rights to determine who will protect them from monopolistic corporations.




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