Montana Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman got an unwelcome surprise last month: Three-dozen of his emails from his state office account had been posted on a news website, after they’d been acquired without his knowledge or permission.
Now, PSC officials are investigating how someone within the office obtained and disseminated those emails, several of which included highly personal information.
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this entire thing, and justice, one way or another, is going to be secured, and those who are responsible absolutely should be brought to justice,” Koopman told MTN News in an interview this week.
PSC chief counsel Justin Kraske said he hopes to provide commissioners with an “update” on his investigation next week.
The five-member PSC regulates electric, telephone, water and other utilities in Montana. Its members are elected by districts.
PSC Chairman Brad Johnson, R-East Helena, said he’d been advised not to discuss the matter until the investigation is complete.
Koopman, a Bozeman Republican representing southwest and south-central Montana, said the theft of his emails is not only illegal, but also likely a form of retaliation against him for his vocal criticism of other commissioners and recent PSC actions.
“It’s a malicious act,” he said. “Yes, your life (as a public official) is less private than a non-elected official. But it’s quite a different matter when things are picked out of your emails without your knowledge by somebody internally at the PSC simply to harm and embarrass a person.”
Koopman also has hired an attorney, who last month sent a strongly worded letter to the PSC, saying Koopman should be “fully compensated” for any damages and legal costs related to the incident, and that whoever is responsible should be “dealt with severely and to the full extent of the law.”
The emails – 39 in total – were posted early last month on Northwest Liberty News, which calls itself an “alternative news” website, based in Kalispell.
In a video story posted at the same time, website owner Jim White said he acquired the emails from “sources.” He said he posted them because the emails are public records and he felt the public should see how Koopman openly criticized fellow commissioners, staffers and constituents.
“People need to be held accountable for what they say and do,” he said in his broadcast.
In some of the emails addressed to PSC staffers or other commissioners, Koopman complains about office policies and actions, and, at one point, tells his colleagues to “rediscover their backbones and sense of fairness.”
But three of the emails were addressed to his daughter or his lawyer, discussing personal affairs.
Koopman said any formal public-records request for his state-account emails would have produced the bulk of the emails – but that the personal emails would not have been released.
White had posted all 39 emails on his website. However, this week, after being contacted by MTN News, he took down the three emails addressed to Koopman’s daughter and attorney, saying he hadn’t realized their personal content. His initial story also hadn’t specifically referenced any of those three emails.
Koopman said he first heard about the posted emails in mid-January from Kraske, the PSC’s attorney, who had been notified by PSC Chair Johnson. Kraske then notified the state Information Technology Services Division, which oversees state computer systems.
An ITSD spokeswoman said the division investigated and determined that no one had hacked into Koopman’s computer from outside the state.
Koopman and Kraske, the PSC’s attorney, said the investigation is focusing on whether someone from within the PSC office acquired and disseminated the emails.
Emails sent from a state computer are considered state property and public documents. However, state policy allows only certain personnel to access someone else’s computer to view their emails, such as agency technology staff or one’s supervisor.
Also, while emails on a state account are public documents, information in those emails still has constitutional and legal protections that may prevent its release to the public.
For example, legally defined “confidential information” cannot be publicly disclosed when “an individual privacy interest clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”
Kraske said if Koopman’s emails had been formally requested as part of a public-records request, portions of his communications that included private information would have been redacted.
“This wasn’t a records request, clearly,” he said this week. “We take the duties to maintain confidential information very seriously. … I’m trying to figure out what happened and how to deal with it.”
Kraske also said while employees are supposed to restrict their use of state email to state business, state policy does allow some “de minimis” personal use.
Koopman told MTN News the public certainly has a right to see any of his emails pertaining to PSC business, and that many of his critical comments in the posted emails are things he has said publicly.
“I’ve been very open about my concerns about the commission,” he said. “I’ve been here for seven years and I have not seen it run as poorly as I’ve seen it now. I’ve not seen the morale of our wonderful staff as low as I see it right now.”
Among other things, Koopman has criticized Johnson and other commissioners – all of them fellow Republicans -- for not following proper hiring procedures, for blocking his efforts to enforce a stricter travel policy and for putting out an erroneous press release on major PSC action.
“I have no heartburn at all over people seeing anything I write that’s related to my job here,” he said. “But none of us should be rummaging through others’ emails here, certainly not commissioner emails, just for the purpose of putting something out to the media to embarrass somebody.”