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PSC Chair Johnson fined $3K for ethics violation involving candidate letter

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Montana PSC Chairman Brad Johnson Montana PSC Chairman Brad Johnson
HELENA -

The state’s top political cop says Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson violated state ethics law when he used public resources to write a letter chastising a PSC candidate last fall, and ordered him to pay a $3,000 fine.

In a decision released Friday, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan said the letter, written on state equipment and distributed to Montana newspapers, was a clear attempt to encourage voters to reject PSC candidate Caron Cooper of Livingston.

“Mr. Johnson has a right to express his personal political views,” Mangan wrote. “What Mr. Johnson does not have, however, is a right to the use of state resources to express those political views.”

Johnson, a Republican from East Helena, acknowledged that he used a state office and computer and consulted with a PSC staffer when he wrote the letter to correct what he said were erroneous statements made by Cooper about electric rates.

But Johnson told MTN News he did not intend the letter to be political, and instead was just correcting the record.

“My motivation was to defend the record of the commission, which had been inaccurately characterized,” he said Friday. “I had nothing to gain personally or politically.”

Mangan, however, disagreed, and noted that Johnson had questioned Cooper’s fitness for office “if elected” – a statement that Mangan said “solicited opposition” to Cooper.

Cooper ran as in Independent in a three-way race last fall in PSC District 3, which covers 14 counties in southwest Montana. She finished third with 14 percent of the vote; Republican Commissioner Roger Koopman of Bozeman won re-election with 49 percent.

Johnson’s letter, which he sent to area newspapers two weeks before the Nov. 8 election, said Cooper had falsely claimed that residential electricity rates in Montana had increased 15 percent in the four years before the election.

He also noted she had criticized the PSC for not accepting certain solar-power projects and rates.

“For someone running for the Public Service Commission, Cooper has shown a surprising lack of knowledge of the subject matter she will be working on,” Johnson wrote. “She appears driven by an ideological urge to support green energy at any cost to ratepayers, a dangerous characteristic in a PSC commissioner.”

Cooper filed an ethics complaint against Johnson a few days after the letter appeared in several newspapers.

Mangan cited Johnson for three violations – using state facilities, equipment and personnel for political purposes – and fined him the maximum $1,000 for each violation. Mangan did not order Johnson to pay any costs.

Johnson said Friday he has no plans to appeal Mangan’s decision to court, but that he wants to discuss the case with Mangan’s office “about how we bring this to a resolution.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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