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Utility regulator seeks $2.5M in damages over email spying

December 31, 2020 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An outgoing member of Montana’s Public Service Commission has filed a $2.5 million damage claim against fellow members of the utility regulating board along with staff members after his emails were leaked to a right-wing webcast. An internal investigation also found false police reports were filed against Roger Koopman.

The legal notice filed with the Department of Administration lists Koopman, his wife and daughter as claimants. The agency confirmed receiving the complaint Tuesday, but declined to release the document before reviewing it for privacy issues, The Billings Gazette reported.

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Koopman’s attorney, Chris Gallus, said the complaint alleged invasion of privacy, defamation and retaliation. Much of the information in the claim was released in September under a court order after the Gazette, Gannett Newspapers and Yellowstone Public Radio requested the results of internal investigations into animosity in the commission office.

The emails given to Northwest Liberty News included personal ones between Koopman and family members, emails he argued wouldn’t have been released had someone made a public records request through the Public Service Commission, Koopman has said.

The damage claim filed with the state is a precursor to a possible lawsuit. The state has 120 days to respond and possibly negotiate a settlement or a complaint will be filed in District Court, Gallus said.

The rift dates back to at least late 2019 when Koopman began contacting the media with concerns about the amount of money fellow commissioners were spending on travel. He also questioned the work ethic of some commissioners and complained that a news release about the PSC delaying a rate case was false. He sent out his own statement saying regulators had approved a $6.5 million rate increase for NorthWestern Energy customers.

The emails released to Northwest Liberty News in January 2020 included Koopman’s complaints about travel spending and his perception that other PSC members did little work.

Koopman argued his emails were leaked to the webcast in retaliation for his statement about the rate increase.

Commissioner Randy Pinocci and PSC spokesperson Drew Zinecker appeared on the Northwest Liberty News webcast in February 2020 to discuss accusations that Koopman was showing signs of being mentally and emotionally unstable and that Zinecker feared Koopman might bring a gun to the office and hurt him and others, the Great Falls Tribune reported at the time.

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Pinocci told the Tribune it was concerns by staff that prompted him to make a public records request for Koopman’s emails. He denied leaking them. The internal investigation determined Zinecker also had access to Koopman’s emails and was the likely leaker.

In late February 2020, PSC staff attorney Zachary T. Rogala wrote a memo to staff that read: “It is important to note that the Legal Division is aware of no credible threats from Commissioner Koopman to anyone in this office, including Mr. Zinecker.”

Investigation results a judge ordered released in September indicated the Montana Highway Patrol was called to the PSC office after Zinecker reported he was fearful. The patrol noted Zinecker seemed “giddy” and “thrilled” at the prospect of needing additional patrol resources at the PSC.

The commissioners put Zinecker on paid leave in the spring. Zinecker, who said in September he was still on paid leave, declined to comment on the investigation at the time. He did not immediately return a text message Thursday seeking comment.