Montana PSC: Email hacking complicates public records requests

The Montana Public Service Commission is struggling with issues of transparency, from a lack of gas price updates to the release of commission emails.

On Tuesday, the Public Service Commission considered three different items that had Commissioner Randy Pinocci of Sun River facing off against the other four commissioners on the issue of transparency.

The first came as the PSC voted 4-1 to finalize Montana-Dakota Utilities’ gas-cost tracking charge. Pinocci asked why Sidney ratepayers weren’t seeing lower gas prices if the cost of natural gas is “as low as it’s ever been,” according to utilities that want to build natural gas turbines to produce electricity.

A PSC staff member said gas prices decreased about four months ago but haven’t changed since. Pinocci said he wanted more information on gas prices.

“The concern is, when they start generating electricity with natural gas, that we’ll see rate increases because natural gas is now being used to generate electricity,” Pinocci said.

However, the main item related to transparency was Pinocci’s motion that the PSC and its staff respond to public records requests in a more timely manner and be willing to release all commission emails.

Pinocci said he’d received complaints from several people who had submitted requests but hadn’t received anything. Some of the requests have languished for more than 100 days, Pinocci said.

“While campaigning for this position, I promised complete transparency,” Pinocci said. “So any email that’s not pertaining to a current docket under review has to be released. For those of you commissioners or legal concerned about personal emails, keep in mind, that’s why you’re not supposed to use your state computer for personal emails to begin with.”

Commissioner Bob Lake said members of the public often don’t comprehend how many emails commissioners deal with. During the Colstrip power plant discussions, he was receiving 500 to 600 a day.

“We have received multiple record requests in the recent past for four out of five commissioners’ emails, all of their emails,” said PSC chief legal counsel Justin Kraske. “None of those requests have gone further because of the cost.”

Kraske said his staff try to work with requests to fine-tune the search and whittle down the amount of work. If less than 30 minutes of work is required, they don’t charge for the records.

“We can always improve. I’m happy to work with any commissioners to help focus the process. Because we maybe also need to work on a records request policy,” Kraske said.

The commission voted 4-1 to reject the motion.

One records request came from Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, asking for any complaints or concerns about Commissioner Tony O’Donnell.

Kraske said his staff had provided Zolnikov with a list of potential emails that would take 25 to 40 hours of work to retrieve and review. But Kraske had identified three emails that would be withheld due to attorney-client privilege.

Zolnikov – O’Donnell’s opponent in the race for PSC District 2 commissioner – is now questioning why those three won’t be released.

O’Donnell said legal council hadn’t told him which emails were being withheld but he had nothing to hide. However, he was opposed to releasing all commissioners’ emails, saying that a hacker could insert fake emails that he hadn’t written.

“I believe in transparency,” O’Donnell said. “But for the malicious nature of this thing and the apparent complicity of a staff member who is very closely associated with Zolnikov, then I am very concerned about the quality of any of his information.”

The computer system of the state of Montana hasn’t suffered any recent hacking attempts. But the PSC had an incident in January when someone accessed Commissioner Roger Koopman’s emails and leaked them to a right-wing blog.

Kraske briefed the commissioners on the event in a Feb. 18 closed-door meeting, which prompted Tuesday’s second item, Koopman’s motion to censure Pinocci for unprofessional conduct, namely viewing Koopman’s emails.

According to a complaint Koopman put together, Pinocci gained access to Koopman’s emails by using Chairman Brad Johnson’s signature stamp on record request forms without Johnson’s knowledge. Johnson reportedly confirmed this to the commission on Feb. 18.

Koopman said his motion was just to start the censure process, which would include presentation of the evidence against Pinocci. He added that censure would not result in Pinocci losing his job – it would just be a warning.

“It’s easy for us to view this motion as a personal matter and certainly there are strong personal feelings. I feel personally violated,” Koopman said.

“Having a fellow commissioner viewing my emails without my knowledge is no different than wire-tapping my phone or bugging my office or putting a surveillance camera behind my statue of Patrick Henry. I feel very violated by that and very violated by the terrible things that have been said about me and been done to me.”

Both Koopman and Pinocci had to excuse themselves from the process. When Chairman Brad Johnson called for a second on the motion, no one spoke and the motion died.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.