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Lee Enterprises last week sued the Montana Public Service Commission alleging the agency set excessive costs and hurdles for public records requests that violated the state’s open records laws.

The petition, filed Dec. 3 in Lewis and Clark County District Court, raises three instances in which Lee Enterprises’ reporters sought PSC records and were met with upfront costs, in one case $31,000, and legal reviews before the documents would be disclosed.

A spokesperson for the PSC said the agency had not yet been served with the filing and had no comment Monday.

Lee Enterprises is the parent company of several Montana newspapers, including the Helena Independent Record, Billings Gazette, Missoulian, Montana Standard (Butte) and Ravalli Republic in Hamilton.

The lawsuit challenges the costs the PSC has assigned to fulfilling the records requests and argues the costs of “legal review” of documents prior to their disclosure is not authorized in the Montana Open Records Act. Such costs, the filing states, has a chilling effect on the public right to examine government documents enshrined in the constitution.

The first records request followed a fiscal compliance audit earlier this year that found lax spending practices and falsified documents generated to justify expenses at the agency. On June 7, a Lee reporter requested access to records related to travel invoices, expense reports and reimbursements for the commission and staff, along with additional records related to the PSC’s attempt to pay down a debt to the state’s information technology services division with a government computer as payment.

On Sept. 3, the PSC’s chief counsel notified the reporter a search for relevant records had turned up nearly 25,000 documents and legal staff would need $31,000 to conduct the legal review before the documents were disclosed.

On Oct. 3, another Lee reporter requested all text messages, emails and phone records made by Public Service Commissioner Jennifer Fielder using government resources concerning a patient at St. Peter’s Health in Helena. A legislative probe into an incident at St. Peter’s found Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Deputy AG Kris Hansen and Fielder had each spoken with hospital employees at various levels after a COVID-19 patient’s family complained the hospital would not provide ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, two drugs not approved by the FDA for treatment. Fielder, according to the probe, had left a voicemail with the hospital stating the patient had connections with the state Senate and a lawsuit could ensue if “this doesn’t turn out well.”

In response to the request, the PSC’s attorney told Lee he was “working on placing a hold notice” on the requested documents, and later requested $240 in order to effectuate the “hold notice.” Lee paid the fee, and weeks later the PSC notified Lee that it would require an advanced payment of $870 to cover the costs of reviewing the documents before any disclosure.

And on Oct. 26, one of the PSC commissioners said during a meeting he had received a text message from the CEO of NorthWestern Energy, one of the utilities regulated by the agency. At the time of the text, the PSC was discussing NorthWestern Energy taxes; a Lee reporter requested access to all communications between the commissioners concerning Northwestern Energy from Oct. 25 through Oct. 27.

The petition seeks a judge’s order directing the PSC to release the requested documents and finding that legal review by a government body is not a proper cost that can be used as a pre-condition to disclose public documents under the state’s open records laws.

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