HELENA — Montana's top utilities regulator broke ethics laws when he used office resources to write a column that disparaged a candidate for the regulatory body during last year's election, the state's chief political watchdog ruled Friday.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan issued a fine of $3,000 against Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Brad Johnson for violating the state's Code of Ethics.
Mangan said Johnson broke the law by penning the letter in his office using a government computer and his state email account. In addition, Mangan said, Johnson violated the ethics code by having his agency's legal counsel review his op-ed piece targeting 2016 candidate Caron Cooper.
Johnson said he was disappointed by the ruling but did not plan to file a legal challenge.
"I'll work with the commissioner of political practices to bring this to a final resolution," Johnson said.
Nevertheless, he said, the ruling could have a chilling effect on the ability of elected officials to defend themselves against criticism.
Cooper was seeking a spot on the PSC when Johnson wrote his commentary, which was published in October in the editorial pages of at least three newspapers. She later filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practices.
The intent of the letter, Johnson said, was not meant to be a statement opposing the Cooper's candidacy but to rebut criticism against the regulatory agency. Johnson did not dispute that he used agency resources to write his commentary, but argued that the piece should not be considered as electioneering.
Mangan disagreed and said Johnson's piece was "express advocacy which solicits opposition to Ms. Cooper, a clearly identified state candidate."
The Public Services Commission is the state's chief regulator of power companies and other utilities.
Cooper could not be immediately reached for comment.