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HELENA - A state hearings officer ruled this week that Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar violated state ethics law and said Molnar should pay a $5,750 fine - the largest fine ever recommended in a state ethics case.

In a strongly worded order, University of Montana law professor William Corbett said Molnar violated ethics laws by soliciting money from energy companies to fund a Billings conservation event in 2007 and by using state equipment for his 2008 re-election campaign.

Corbett also said Molnar should pay part of the state's cost of the proceeding, given Molnar's "refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing, his evasiveness, his attacks on the complainant (and) his role in the protracted nature of the proceeding."

Corbett submitted his order Tuesday to state Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth, who makes the final decision on the 21-month-old case.

Unsworth said each side will have 30 days to submit written comments, after which he'll issue his order.

Molnar of Laurel, a Republican commissioner representing southeastern Montana, said Thursday he was "absolutely shocked" by the order.

"I thought it was very plainly shown that to use the money for a conservation project was well within the confines of the law," said Molnar. "This is ridiculous."

He declined further comment, saying that neither he nor his lawyer, state Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, had seen a copy.

Corbett said there is "nothing minor about the violations," and that Molnar's "misconduct is not isolated or insignificant."

He recommended Molnar be fined $1,000 each for two gifts he solicited from two energy companies that appear before the PSC, which regulates utilities. He also said Molnar should pay a $750 fine for each of five violations on charges that he used state equipment in his re-election campaign.

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Corbett's order stems from complaints filed in 2008 by Mary Jo Fox, a Billings resident who managed the campaign of Molnar's Democratic opponent that year, Ron Tussing.

Molnar easily defeated Tussing in the 2008 general election to win a second term on the five-member PSC.

Fox accused Molnar of violating ethics law by using his state computer, e-mail and telephone for various campaign purposes, using a state cell phone for his personal business, and soliciting $1,000 donations from PPL Montana and NorthWestern Energy to help fund the "Great Billings Brownout," a conservation event promoted by Molnar in late 2007.

Molnar used the money to pay for printing brochures featuring his picture and promoting the brownout, which encouraged people to reduce their power usage for one day, to show how energy could be conserved voluntarily.

NorthWestern is the state's largest electric-and-gas utility; PPL is the state's largest power producer, owning more than a dozen coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants.

Molnar admitted later distributing some of the brochures when he campaigned door-to-door in Billings in early 2008.

Fox said Thursday she is "very pleased" with the ruling, which she called "a win for the public's right to know (and) a win for the public's right to hold their public officials accountable."

Fox said she plans to file additional complaints with the commissioner of political practices, asking him to consider additional violations that she says Molnar revealed at a November hearing on the case.

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At the hearing, Molnar revealed that he solicited NorthWestern and Montana-Dakota Utilities to donate money to the Laurel and Miles City chambers of commerce during his re-election campaign, to fund a "conservation challenge" between the cities, she said. Fox said Molnar used the events to promote himself as a candidate. Each utility donated $500, she said.

When asked about the additional complaints, Molnar said: "I guess she's going to do what she's going to do. If this is her hobby, that's fine."

Molnar has maintained that the money solicited from NorthWestern and PPL Montana is allowed by law because it was used to fund an "educational" event.

Corbett, however, said the brownout was not part of Molnar's "official government duties," which the law requires if the "educational" exception is to be applied - and that Molnar used some of the brochures as campaign material, which was clearly not "educational."

Corbett also said soliciting donations from companies that appear before the PSC creates a clear "perception of impropriety," and could lead to influencing Molnar's actions as a regulator.

"It is reasonable to conclude that an elected regulator who solicits money from the regulated will look for and find some way to repay the implied obligation," he wrote.

Corbett found no violation on the cell phone usage complaint, saying it was "occasional personal use," which is allowed.

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

 

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