A board of Montana state government officials is embroiled in a feud over hacked emails, a far-right website, and accusations of being potential workplace shooters. But the origins of the baroque feud remain fuzzy—every time news outlets request public documents about it, the Montana officials sue them.
The Montana Public Service Commission does the dry work of regulating the state’s private utility companies. All five commissioners are Republicans. That hasn’t stopped the infighting. In January, a trove of emails from one of the commissioners appeared on a fringe-right blog that trades in conspiracy theories and sells T-shirts accusing Child Protective Services of kidnapping children. The emails appeared to have been leaked by someone within Montana PSC.
Far from catching the culprit, an investigation into the leak has caused far-reaching fallout, leading to a lawsuit against Montana media this month. It’s the latest example of governments going full fringe, while throwing local media under the bus.
Office politics roiled the PSC all through the back half of 2019. Roger Koopman, one of the commission’s five members, reportedly clashed with colleagues over issues like travel expenses and what he claimed was a sweetheart deal for a major Montana energy company.
The situation might end in murder, one PSC staffer warned in a January email.
“The erratic behavior of Commissioner Koopman has gotten to the point where I am concerned for my personal safety to a very serious degree,” Drew Zinecker, the commission’s communications director emailed a commissioner in January. “It is no secret that Commissioner Koopman has what can only be described as an infatuation with Chairman Johnson and is dedicated to his demise.”
That email, uploaded under the headline, “Terror in Helena! ‘I’m Afraid that Roger Koopman Will Bring a Gun to Work and Shoot Me,’” was one of dozens released by the blog NorthWest Liberty News, a right-wing blog that frequently decries the “New World Order” and peddles COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
In January, NorthWest Liberty News began publishing Koopman’s work emails, including some in which he had criticized colleagues. Theoretically anyone could request access those messages. Public officials’ work messages are fair game under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows reporters and members of the public to request copies.
But no one had requested Koopman’s emails through official channels. Instead, according to an internal PSC investigation first reported by the Billings Gazette, at least two of Koopman’s colleagues had obtained illicit access. One, Commissioner Randall Pinocci, obtained the emails through internal records requests. The requests appeared to have been signed by the commission’s chair, who told the Gazette that someone had forged his signature. (The commission’s internal investigation reveals that he knowingly signed off on the requests and discussed them in the office.)
Zinecker, the PSC’s communications director, also had access to the emails, which “may even allow him to write emails directly from all five Commissioner accounts which would appear to be coming from them directly to staff constituents, and members of the public,” the internal investigation found.
The appearance of Koopman’s emails alongside anti-Illuminati rants on NorthWest Liberty News did not improve office relations.
“Just on Friday Mr. Zinecker sent an email to the entire Commission making light of the email breach and appeared to state that Commissioner Koopman had it coming and deserved it,” reads the PSC’s February investigation.
Koopman went public and accused his colleagues of hacking his emails and leaking them to the conspiratorial blog. Pinocci and Zinecker, who denied leaking the messages, went on the counter-offensive and gave an hour-long interview to NorthWest Liberty News accusing Koopman of being a potential mass-shooter. (Neither Koopman, Zinecker, nor Pinocci returned The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.)
“This guy is talking about bringing a gun to work and he is bullying, harassing, and intimidating me,” Zinecker, who is still the PSC’s communications director, said in a February interview with NorthWest Liberty News. “This has been going on for months and now I’m now under the care of a health care provider to try to deal with this and my own health issues that are worsened by Roger’s behavior and treatment of me.” He claimed that stress from the office fight led him to require anti-anxiety medication.
“It’s not just a concern of mine,” he continued. “There’s at least one other commissioner that I know of, and I and at least two other staff members who are concerned that Roger is going to bring a gun and shoot us all.”
All three men still work together.
In May, Koopman brought a motion to censure Pinocci for “libel, slander, intimidation and retaliation, the filing of multiple false reports to law enforcement, fraudulent use of the chairman’s signature stamp, breaching of PSC data security, violating PSC email policy, repeated spying on this commissioner’s emails, hiding of similar violations by a collaborator, violating my personal privacy, and widely disseminating false, malicious, defamatory and humiliating gossip about me.”
His fellow commissioners killed the motion immediately.
Several days later, when multiple Montana media outlets filed public information requests for documents on the increasingly complicated drama, the PSC filed a lawsuit against three of them: the Billings Gazette, Yellowstone Public Radio, and the owner of the Great Falls Tribune.
The lawsuit, which blocks media from obtaining public records about the alleged hacking, might be considered a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP) suit, said Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment attorney.
SLAPP lawsuits don’t always make a strong legal argument. Often their purpose is just to create such a legal headache and financial burden that the defendant gives up before the case even goes to court. For media outlets with tight budgets, a SLAPP suit can force newsrooms to decide whether they want to spend exorbitant legal fees fighting for documents they might never receive.
A quirk of Montana law has previously given the government an edge if it files lawsuits against the media before the media sues for public documents. If that standard is still in place, “it incentivizes government agencies to go to court first so that they might not have to pay for attorneys’ fees,” Steinbaugh said.
In the meantime, PCS is not exactly being forthcoming about its internal drama. The heavily redacted internal PCS investigation obtained by the Gazette suggests the commission isn’t as tight-lipped as its communications director was when he gave the hour-long interview accusing his colleague of being a potential killer.
“The list below is just an initial list of my myriad of legal concerns about” Zinecker’s email access, the report reads. The next three pages are almost entirely redacted.