HELENA – A fractured Republican majority at the Public Service Commission on Tuesday reluctantly coalesced around firebrand Brad Molnar as the body’s vice chairman — preventing a prolonged deadlock over leadership choices amid charges of backroom deals and undue influence of lobbyists and legislators.
Freshman Republican commissioner Bill Gallagher of Helena was picked to lead the body after fellow freshman Travis Kavulla of Great Falls refused to vote for the veteran Molnar. For the most part, the two minority Democrats opposed the deal.
Kavulla says Molnar lacks the temperament and credibility to lead the PSC, which regulates utilities. Molnar, seeking the chairman’s seat for months, lashed back at the 26-year-old as unethical.
Molnar made it clear the issue between him and Kavulla is not settled, promising to investigate the possibility of filing ethics complaints against his fellow Republican.
The wrangling over the selection took nearly two days.
Molnar said Kavulla was doing the bidding of some Republican legislators who dislike him and lobbyists who appear before the commission.
Kavulla said he talked to a lot of people, including those who appear before the commission, to determine if the “rabble-rousing” Molnar was fit to serve as chairman.
Last year Molnar made headlines after he backed into a car at a fast-food drive-thru in Laurel and drove off without identifying himself or reporting the accident. He also was in the news for a ruling that he violated state ethics law by improperly soliciting and receiving money from companies the PSC regulates.
It’s not clear what effect the very public, and abnormally rancid, intraparty dispute will have on the ability of the Republicans, who hold just a 3-2 edge, to manage the commission.
Kavulla, for his part, said he had a thick skin and “can put this behind me relatively quickly.”
One Democrat on the panel said the way the matter was settled will have lasting repercussions. John Vincent said it was inappropriate for the Republicans to put forward what appeared to be a package deal on chair and vice-chair, just to avoid a messy stalemate.
Vincent said the move creates a precedent where future commissioners will package together a leadership ticket to seize power.
“It shouldn’t be mixed up to the point where no one in the public can tell what the hell is going on,” Vincent said. “I really do think it would open the door to all sorts of political maneuvering and gamesmanship.”
Both Democrats voted against Molnar as vice chairman, but Vincent voted in favor of Gallagher as chairman to preserve “some sense of cooperation and even bipartisanship.”
Democrat Gail Gutsche of Missoula opposed both, saying a freshman legislator has no business leading the PSC.
Gallagher, who only agreed to take the chairman post if Molnar was picked as vice chairman, said he hopes the panel can move forward.
“There was a lot of emotion, and I think some of what you heard was the level of intensity the gentlemen were under,” Gallagher said. “As chairman, I won’t give a long leash to that sort of thing you heard here today.”
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