Hearings Officer: Public Service Commissioner Violated Ethics Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar violated state ethics laws by accepting illegal donations and using state office equipment for campaign purposes, a hearings examiner found.

University of Montana professor William Corbett recommended that Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth fine Molnar $5,750 and require him to pay for part of the cost of the proceedings against him because Molnar refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, was evasive, attacked the complainant and caused delays in the proceedings.

The complaint was filed by Mary Jo Fox of Billings, the campaign manager for Ron Tussing who lost a seat on the state board that regulates utilities to Molnar in 2008. The hearing on her complaint was held in November.

Fox said Thursday that she was pleased with the decision and plans to file additional complaints against Molnar for items that came up during the hearing that she was not aware of when she filed her complaint.

Molnar did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Corbett found that Molnar illegally took $1,000 contributions from NorthWestern Energy and PPL Montana to pay for brochures advocating a “brown out” in Billings, encouraging residents to turn off their lights for an hour to save energy. Corbett rejected Molnar’s argument that the brochures were educational materials or that promoting the “brown out” was part of his official government duties.

He also noted that Molnar used some of the leftover brochures as campaign materials.

When Molnar began using the brochures as campaign materials, “the use of the brochures was purely political,” Corbett wrote. He recommended Molnar be fined $2,000 — $1,000 for each $1,000 solicitation.

Molnar sought the $1,000 donation from a NorthWestern Energy officer during a break in a PSC hearing in the fall of 2007, Corbett wrote, saying such donations create the appearance of wrongdoing.

Corbett also found that Molnar violated ethics codes at least four times for using state resources: in sending a letter soliciting campaign donations that listed his PSC e-mail address and phone number; for including his state government e-mail address on a campaign Web site; in sending e-mails using his state-issued computer to a Great Falls Rotary Club contact, a Billings newspaper; and to arrange attendance at the Miles City Horse Sale, where he walked in a parade with other Republican candidates.

The e-mail to the Rotary Club contact, made after Molnar spoke to the Great Falls group, sought a possible newspaper editorial “about how lucky they are to have a commissioner that is so darn knowledgeable and willing to travel on his own dime to educate the public …. Please?”

Attorneys for both sides have 30 days to submit comments on the opinion. Unsworth will then issue his decision and rule on what, if any, fines would be levied against Molnar.

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