HELENA - The state's top campaign-law enforcer is examining a complaint that accuses Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, of accepting illegal corporate donations to finance a brochure of energy conservation tips.
The complaint, filed by the campaign manager of Molnar's Democratic opponent in the general election, says Molnar later used the brochures as campaign material, thus violating state law that forbids corporate donations to political candidates.
Last week, Molnar said he did nothing wrong, and that the complaint filed by Mary Jo Fox is merely a campaign tactic to generate negative publicity about him. Fox is campaign manager for Ron Tussing, who's running against Molnar in PSC District 2.
"This whole episode is about getting negative headlines while being secure that the case will not be decided by election eve," Molnar said.
However, Molnar revealed that he did pay back $1,000 to NorthWestern Energy in March, to avoid any questions about accepting money from a company regulated by the Public Service Commission. The five-member PSC regulates public utilities.
NorthWestern, along with a handful of other businesses, gave money to Molnar late last fall to help sponsor the "Great Billings Brownout," an energy conservation event organized by Molnar.
The brown-out encouraged people and businesses to reduce electricity use for one hour on Dec. 6, to show that people could reduce consumption voluntarily.
Molnar had 30,000 brochures printed to promote the event, with his picture and name on the front. Money from the corporate donors helped pay for the brochures, Molnar said.
PPL Montana, the state's largest power-plant owner, gave $1,000, and local Wal-Marts kicked in another $450, Molnar said. It cost about $1,400 to print the brochures, he said.
PPL is a wholesale power producer and is not regulated by the PSC.
Fox's complaint was filed against Molnar, NorthWestern and PPL.
Most of the brochures were distributed last fall through the Billings School District, downtown businesses, a weekly newspaper and by Molnar himself.
Fox said she filed her complaint last month because Molnar distributed some brochures this spring, after becoming a candidate for re-election to the PSC. Molnar is running for re-election in District 2, which includes Billings and nine southeastern Montana counties.
Tussing, Molnar's Democratic opponent, said some who received the brochures told him they thought it meant sponsors of the brown-out and local officials are endorsing Molnar as a candidate. Tussing is the mayor of Billings.
"I've had several people come up and say to me, 'Oh, I see that the city is supporting your opponent,' " Tussing said.
State Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth said Friday that Molnar, NorthWestern and PPL have responded to the complaint, and that he'll decide soon whether the case needs further investigation.
The office has about 30 cases already under investigation, and Molnar's case would take at least three or four months before a ruling might occur, Unsworth said.
Molnar said complaints filed at the Political Practices Office have become a "publicity stunt" used to generate negative news about political opponents. The accused may be cleared of any wrongdoing, but not until months later, and often after the election, he said.
Meanwhile, the opponent often uses news coverage of the complaint to smear their opponent, he said.
"Only in the twisted, desperate political jargon of Ms. Fox and Mr. Tussing was (the brown-out) even considered political," Molnar said. "Her (complaint) is a hand-edited, rambling text of unrelated events attempting to form a tapestry for future political use."
Fox's complaint said distribution of the brochures as campaign material violates state law, because corporations are barred from supporting political candidates and because Molnar didn't have a "disclaimer" on the brochure telling specifically who paid for it.
Molnar said he distributed about 50 "leftover" brochures when he campaigned door-to-door in Billings earlier this spring, but that they aren't a campaign document.
They were printed five months before he became a candidate and were used to promote the brown out, Molnar said. Accepting corporate money for the costs is allowed under state law, because the money funded "educational material directly related to official governmental duties," he said.
Molnar said he doesn't plan to use any more of the brochures, which now have a small sticker referring to him as "your conservation candidate for Public Service Commission."