Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla, an outspoken critic of Great Falls’ electric utility and its cooperative supplier, has been subpoenaed in a lawsuit between the two entities.
“The subpoena is very broad, sort of a fishing expedition for anything I’ve written or received about ECP or SME,” Kavulla said Thursday.
ECP is Electric City Power, the utility arm of Great Falls. Electric City Power and five electric co-ops in central and southeastern Montana are members of Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, a Billings-based power supplier.
Electric City Power is suing Southern to end its relationship and get a $792,000 deposit returned. Electric City Power is losing money because it negotiated fixed-rate contracts with some of its customers and cannot pass on wholesale rate hikes from Southern. Some of Electric City Power’s customers left to buy power from other suppliers when their contracts ended in June. The city is facing a $5 million debt.
Kavulla was served with the subpoena from the Edwards Law Firm, which is representing Southern. “I don’t know what they’re looking for with any particularity, but you know, I’m happy to comply with the subpoena. I certainly don’t regret anything I’ve said. I think it (the subpoena) is an attempt at intimidation,” Kavulla said.
The subpoena orders Kavulla to produce the documents and to appear for a video deposition on July 28 in Helena.
Attorney Cliff Edwards on Thursday said, “The chairman of the PSC has chosen to inject himself into these matters, and I want to take his deposition under oath to find out exactly what his involvement is and why.”
Edwards dismissed as “nonsense” the idea that the subpoena is intimidation.
“The subpoena is part of the legal process and when you inject yourself like he has, he damned sure becomes part of the legal process and he knows that,” Edwards said.
Documents requested include communications since January related to electricity services with the City of Great Falls, Electric City Power, Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, which is a Southern member also suing to end its contracts, NorthWestern Corp., PPL Montana, Electric City Power customers, Southern and its member co-ops, PSC members and staff, various state senators, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission members and staff, various citizen and environmental organizations, the U.S. Rural Utilities Service, the Wyoming Public Service Commission and Montana media, including The Billings Gazette, Great Falls Tribune and other newspapers.
Kavulla, a Republican from Great Falls, has been highly critical of Southern, saying it is making erratic decisions in secretive meetings. He has blasted Southern and Tim Gregori, Southern’s manager, in the media for raising wholesale rates 13 percent this year to help cover losses created by having to sell excess power into a depressed market.
“It’s no secret I’ve criticized SME for its lack of openness and its poor business decisions that have cost a lot of Montanans, especially rural Montanans, millions of dollars. I’ve made those views pretty clear in a lot of forums and to many people,” Kavulla said.
“I just think it’s sad that Tim Gregori, rather than justifying his decisions with evidence, is constantly choosing to litigate. He’s looking for someone to blame, but the only blameworthy person is, in fact, himself,” Kavulla said.
He is speaking out, he said, because Great Falls is the largest city in his district and he is concerned about the taxpayers having to pay for the losses. The PSC has no regulatory authority over electric co-ops, and Kavulla said he doesn’t think co-ops need PSC oversight because most do a good job.
While he is a PSC commissioner, Kavulla said he is speaking out as an ordinary citizen although commissioners have a history of speaking on energy issues. That he is an elected official maybe “adds an umph to what I say. That goes with the gig,” he said.
Electric City Power and Southern were a campaign issue, and Kavulla said he is not going to break his promise to talk about the matter.
Kavulla has no plans to shut up. If anything, Kavulla said his critique will become more vigorous. “I think I’m in the right here.”