Electrician calls work unsafe

On Oct. 30, a former Missoula Electrical Cooperative employee filed a complaint with the Montana Department of Labor alleging that the electricity provider, which serves seven counties and last year generated $19.5 million in revenue, has routinely performed substandard work, potentially endangering MEC customers and employees.

According to the complaint filed by former MEC Master Electrician Jon Cruson, who worked for the cooperative for 12 years, MEC in 2010 began regularly directing insufficiently trained employees to perform tasks required by law to be conducted by a master electrician.

Cruson alleges that using linemen, rather than the more experienced master electrician, made for dangerous conditions. For example, linemen replaced 100-amp "meter loops," or service connections, with 200-amp conduits, despite limitations on residential electrical loads. As Cruson explained in an email to the Independent, "This means that if more than 100 amps of load are applied to that wire, it would overheat and burn up. (It could) potentially start a fire and burn the structure down ..."

Because Cruson was the master electrician, the alleged legal and safety violations jeopardized his license and left him vulnerable to criminal and civil penalties. In the DOL complaint and in a civil lawsuit filed last summer, Cruson says that he made repeated attempts during a three-year period to draw attention to MEC practices. However, as Cruson's Missoula attorney David Berkoff says, "He was basically told to go stand in a corner."

In response, MEC attorney David B. Cotner denies that the company performed unsafe or unlawful work. "There are no risk issues that exist," Cotner says, adding that he's confident the cooperative will be cleared through ongoing legal proceedings. "We are a believer that the system can flesh out all of the facts and the truth and get to the appropriate resolution of all issues."

MEC is asking the court to dismiss the complaint and to cover its attorney fees, arguing in a July court filing that, "The Co-op's actions were not reckless, wanton, fraudulent or malicious ..."

Cruson says that he was forced to resign from his position to ensure that his electrical license remain in good standing. He's asking the DOL to investigate the cooperative and also refer the case to the Missoula County Attorney's Office for prosecution. If MEC management is found to have violated the law, at least two officials could face penalties of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.

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