Red faces, raised voices, and allegations of ethical misconduct made a return appearance at last week's meeting of the Montana Public Service Commission.
"I have to object to the continued hijacking of the commission work sessions," said Republican commissioner Bill Gallagher, who represents Lewis and Clark, Lake, and Flathead counties, among others. "I want that objection on the record."
Gallagher alleges that Republican commissioner Travis Kavulla, who represents northeastern Montana, breached PSC rules when Kavulla took a trip in March to a conference in Las Vegas paid for by investors in utilities that the PSC oversees.
Gallagher and Kavulla have been arguing about the extent of Kavulla's involvement with such investors, and "the Las Vegas trip is one component of that," Gallagher told the Independent last week. "People who own utilities have one thing in mind: making money."
Kavulla says the PSC's legal counsel cleared his Vegas trip in advance. The fresh-faced Republican asserts Gallagher's claim is simply retaliation for breaking from conservative ranks. "We're dealing with a kind of vendetta culture here," he says.
Meanwhile, one has to wonder how the PSC's intended work will get done. Its five members are elected to four-year terms. Five months into its annual session, it appears to be bogged down by what Gallagher calls "sandbox antics."
They're supposed to evaluate the rates that utilities can charge for water, power, and phone service, among other things. The PSC is also meant to be a quasi-judicial watchdog. For example, when they're not bickering with one another, commissioners are now deliberating whether to scrutinize the sale of Mountain Water Company to the world's largest private investment company, the Carlyle Group. If the PSC finds the sale of Missoula's municipal water supply to Carlyle isn't in the public interest, it could nix the deal.
The infighting erupted during the panel's first meeting of this session, on Jan. 3., as it prepared to elect its chair. Brad Molnar, a Republican from Laurel, is the most senior commissioner and therefore seemed the logical choice for a panel with a three-member Republican majority.
That didn't happen. Kavulla refused to back Molnar unless Molnar signed off on a code of conduct pledging, among other things, to steer clear of acts of political reprisal.
Molnar has a history of conflicts of interest. Last year, Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices ruled he violated the state's code of ethics for elected officials when, in 2007, by his own admission, Molnar asked PPL Montana and NorthWestern Energy for money while he was serving on the PSC. He was fined $5,750, and ordered to reimburse $14,945, a portion of the cost of investigating his case.
Molnar says NorthWestern and PPL donations helped pay to educate constituents about the merits of energy conservation through an event called the Billings Brownout. Because the money was used for education, he says, his actions were on the up-and-up and he's appealing the ruling, adding, "I can't find a law that I broke."
Because Kavulla refused to vote for Molnar as chairman of the PSC, the commission elected Gallagher to that role. He didn't last long.
In April, Missoula commissioner Gail Gutsche, along with the Gallatin Valley's John Vincent and Kavulla, accused Gallagher of helping hide the fact that Molnar attended a Federal Energy Regulatory Conference on the taxpayers' dime without permission from other commissioners.
A new alliance of Gutsche, Vincent, and Kavulla formed. Kavulla became chair. Gutsche is now vice chair. Since then, commissioners have broached the subject of ethical wrongdoing every week for the past five weeks.
During one meeting, commissioners debated where they should sit at their long table.
Gallagher admits it's been a spectacle. "Different people have used various analogies—sandbox antics, a circus," he says. "I like to call it Survivor Island, where we have Tribal Council and there can be alliance shifts. And next thing you know, you're standing there getting your chairman's torch snuffed out, being told the tribe has spoken."
Ultimately, Montana consumers could be paying for this circus. Investors don't like regulatory uncertainty, Gallagher says. The PSC's antics could spook investors who might otherwise put money into Montana utilities. "Conflict at the commission could translate to higher rates," he says.
Meanwhile, unhappy with last Tuesday's meeting, Gallagher says he'll file a complaint against Kavulla. "I'm going to drop all of my concerns into a single petition and ask the Commissioner of Political Practices to resolve the question for us."
And Molnar is firing back. He alleges members of the Democratic minority are breaking the rules and says he'll propose looking at commissioners' phone records.