HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the ruling that former Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar violated state ethics laws and should pay $20,700 in fines and costs – some five years after the case began.

In its 5-0 decision, the court late Wednesday agreed that Molnar improperly accepted two $1,000 gifts from power companies to finance an energy-conservation event and improperly used public “facilities” – his state email address and computer – to help his 2008 re-election campaign.

Molnar, who retired from the PSC in January after two terms, denounced the decision Thursday and said the case against him has been a political vendetta and a sham from the beginning.

“I’m being prosecuted for holding a conservation event?” said the Laurel Republican. “If I were a Democrat, I would have been given a medal. …

“I’m feeling for some reason that I’ve been singled out, and they’re willing to reverse all prior laws and rulings to do what they’re doing.”

But the woman who filed the complaints against Molnar – Mary Jo Fox of Billings, who managed the campaign of Molnar’s Democratic opponent in 2008 – said Thursday the court upheld what every ruling has said in the lengthy case: That Molnar broke the law.

“The court said … you cannot shake down corporations for money and put it in your pocket, and that’s what he did.”

Fox said pursuing the case for five years has come at great personal cost, but it was worth it to show the average person can pursue and win an ethics complaint against a public official.

“In the future, other people who are faced with a public official who has broken the law and acted unethically should have an easier time holding them accountable,” she said. “Hopefully it won’t take the next person five years.”

Fox filed several complaints against Molnar in 2008, while managing the campaign of Democrat Ron Tussing, whom Molnar easily defeated for the PSC seat representing southeast Montana. The PSC regulates utilities in Montana.

The illegal gift charge stemmed from Molnar’s acceptance of $1,000 each in late 2007 from NorthWestern Corp. and PPL Montana to help him publicize a public “brown-out” in Billings.

The event encouraged consumers to stop using electricity for an hour. Molnar said it showed how voluntary conservation worked better than government-mandated programs.

Molnar later used some of the brown-out brochures when he campaigned door-to-door in 2008.

NorthWestern asked Molnar to return the money when it learned he had used the brochures to campaign.

Other Fox complaints said Molnar used his PSC email and computer in soliciting campaign funds in 2008 and for other campaign activity.

Then-Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth ruled in 2010 that Molnar violated ethics laws and ordered him to pay the fines and costs. Molnar appealed that ruling to state District Court, where he lost last year, and then to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said the money given to Molnar was not a direct “educational activity,” as allowed by law, and that Molnar had clearly used public facilities for political purposes, which is against the law.

It also rejected his claim that Fox lacked legal “standing,” because she hadn’t been directly harmed by his action. The court said the state ethics law clearly says any person can file a complaint.

Molnar said enforcement of state ethics laws depends on one’s politics, and pointed to how the current political practices commissioner – appointed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer – dismissed a long-standing case against Schweitzer last year.

“If I could pick my own judge that decides my case, this whole thing would have gone away,” he said.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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