Lawmakers need to keep pushing PSC for more answers

Pause with me, if you will, to consider what Legislative Auditors reported Monday about the Public Service Commission: That documents were falsified, procedures were ignored and the state of things was so precarious that it could come to no professional conclusion as to the financial condition among those charged with overseeing arguably the most complex aspects of utility regulation, which affects every person in the state.

Put simply, the Public Service Commission recent audit and management practice is an unmitigated catastrophe.

Republican legislators on the Legislative Audit Committee declared the end of partisan bickering that characterized the 2021 Legislature, and instead admirably turned on the commission, and its completely Republican leaders. In doing so, they were absolutely right to declare that mismanagement had nothing to do with political party affiliation, and then they excoriated the commission for being so reckless.

To lawmakers: It was a rare case of bipartisan agreement and an even more seldom channeling of rage that many citizens feel when they learned tax dollars have been squandered on leaders who make six figures a year.

I’d argue lawmakers’ inquiry didn’t quite go far enough, though.

While we know that documents were falsified and a commissioner decided to fly in “comfort class” rather than coach, we still don’t know the full extent of the hijinx, if such a trivial word can be used. It’s the old Watergate question: We must know who did what, when and what happened afterward.

It must be something more than casting the blame on a rather monolithic commission. After all, the commission didn’t make those mistakes; the commission didn’t mishandle money; and the commission didn’t falsify documents so badly that auditors are left unable to say anything for certain. Those actions were done by individuals who were elected by the people and now must stand to answer, not as a nameless, faceless commission, but as individual commissioners.

Montanans deserve to know exactly how the money was mishandled and who did it. This isn’t an exercise in a pound of flesh, though. This is an exercise in resetting the standard: Audits and their results aren’t merely perfunctory; rather they serve a transparent, public purpose. We must be able to hear directly from those responsible, and they must answer the tough questions or risk having this happen again because the punishment is light and fleeting.

In fact, there’s ample evidence that some commissioners are waiting for this whole thing to blow over. When Sen. Mary McNally of Billings asked whether any commissioner or employee had volunteered to pay back the difference between comfort class and coach, Commission Chairman James Brown replied, “The short answer would be no.”

Brown is the one person who seems truly aggrieved about the situation, and yet his election to the board happened after the problems occurred. It’s also been refreshing to see a leader so candid who truly gets the magnitude of the situation. Lest anyone think the media is exaggerating this, let’s remember what auditor Jessie Curtis said: The audit division has taken the extraordinary step only twice before: It’s said it couldn’t make an opinion because auditors “did not believe they could adequately verify information.”

How bad must the records be?

And yet, it gets worse. When McNally asked about the comfort class airline tickets, poor Brown had to stand to answer the questions while Brad Johnson, the commissioner who traveled, remained silent. Johnson is, for the record, the vice chairman of the PSC.

“I think that’s a question the committee may want to direct in writing to that commissioner,” Brown replied.

We hope the audit committee takes Brown up on his suggestion and when they do, we hope to publish the account.

Somehow — whether that’s in writing, in person or Morse Code — the public deserves more transparency, and it damn sure deserves more accountability.

There’s another important reason why the Public Service Commission must have a full accounting of what happened: If this stain isn’t purged from the commission, it will likely become a political chit that will be played by politicians during the next legislative session who are looking for any excuse to eradicate oversight of public utilities.

Though I find the actions of the commission smarmy if not insulting, that same commission has held powerful interests, namely public utilities, to account for some of their questionable actions, including an attempt to saddle ratepayers with costs related to not running a coal-fired plant correctly, and ensuring that government tax rebates were shared among those footing the power bills.

In other words, this same group who has seemingly stood in the way of some of the worst proposals by huge energy monopolies has also been guilty of fudging books and bilking benefits from the citizens.

That’s why a complete, full, honest, and probably painful public reckoning needs to take place. Without it, the Montana Public Service Commission will be tarred with the same brush as those utility companies — both will be seen as trying to take advantage of the citizens. It will be as if two different groups of foxes are guarding the same henhouse.

Cheers to Brown and the staff for trying to clean up what appears to be a toxic mix of entitlement and arrogance. It’s not a good look for a commission that is supposed to be looking out for the people.

In other words, discomfort those who decided on comfort class. And overstate how exactly $100,000 in revenue and expenses was understated in 2019.