Two NRPPD employees fined $2000 in civil penalties, appeal pending

By Ang Gilchrist

The State of Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission has ruled in favor of a complaint filed by Michael Van Buskirk, alleging that publicly funded radio advertising was used to campaign against him in the months leading up to the November 2010 Board of Directors election for the Nebraska Rural Public Power District(NRPPD).

“As an individual, I feel like justice has been served as a result of this process. Now it is up to the district to make these tough choices based on the decision,” said Van Buskirk.

He hopes the district will learn from this and address the matter, preventing it from ever happening again.

The complaint filed was directed towards NRPPD employees Rolland Skinner, General Operations Manager, and Les Tlustos, Consumer Service Director. In the ruling filed April 20, 2012, Skinner and Tlustos were ordered to pay $2000.00 each as a civil penalty. They each have the opportunity to appeal the commission’s decision to the District Court and that process is already in the works.

According to Skinner, “We disagree totally with their conclusion and we are starting the appeal process.” Skinner went on to say that they (NRPPD) have an obligation to present educational, accurate, and factual information to their customers and that until the legal process was complete, he wouldn’t comment further on the ruling. When asked, Tlustos added, “Everything in our ads was true.” Skinner and Tlustos are represented by Terry Curtis of Alliance, Neb.

According to the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Order provided to the Sheridan County Journal Star by Van Buskirk, the original complaint was filed on October 21, 2011 and has been through hearing proceedings leading up to the recent ruling. A summary of the stated facts includes:

* During a radio interview and an article printed in the Sheridan County Journal Star in April 2010, Van Buskirk expressed his support for wind energy, rate containment, and economic growth and announced those topics as his platform in seeking a position on the Board of Directors for NRPPD. He also criticized the board for its failure to contain rates and support wind energy, reinstating his platform for his campaign.

*Later that month the Sheridan County board considered a resolution on the subject of renewable energy and held a public hearing. All three men were in attendance, with Skinner testifying that wind energy was not efficient and Van Buskirk expressed his support of the use of wind energy. The Sheridan County board adopted a resolution in favor of renewable energy.

*Following Van Buskirk’s radio interview, Skinner and Tlustos, along with the Panhandle Rural Electric District manager, did their own radio interview to “correct inaccurate statements which they felt had been made by Van Buskirk.” Skinner and Tlustos also sent proposed articles to four area newspapers in May 2010 that were critical of wind energy. *During the first nine months of 2010 and previous months, Skinner and Tlustos aired once-a-month radio infomercials as part of NRPPD’s longstanding policy of public service announcements to educate consumers about public issues.

*Beginning in October 2010 Skinner and Tlustos aired three different infomercials on four different area radio stations. The infomercials ran between October 4 - November 2, 2010. The ‘wind energy’ infomercial was played 73 times, the ‘energy duplication’ infomercial aired 25 times, and the ‘rates’ infomercial was played 74 times. The infomericials were intended to correct what they viewed as misinformation presented by Van Buskirk through his radio interview, the newspaper article, and the (passed) county board resolution dealing with wind energy and rates.

*Van Buskirk’s name was never mentioned in any of the infomercials and no member of the board directed that those infomercials were to be run immediately prior to the election. *Van Buskirk was contacted by constituents concerned about the timing and content of the infomercials ran by Skinner and Tlustos. On October 21, 2010, Van Buskirk asked Skinner and Tlustos to stop running their infomercials dealing with wind energy, energy duplication, and rates. They refused to stop and Van Buskirk’s complaint was immediately filed with the commission.

*No similar infomercials were run during the months following the election in 2010.

The State of Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission consists of seven commissioners. All seven commissioners concurred to the ruling of a civil penalty of $2000 each to Skinner and Tlustos, stating “...specifically finds that during the months of October and November 2010, Rolland Skinner and Les Tlustos, and each of them, as public employees of the Northwest Rural Public Power District, a Nebraska governmental entity, expended public funds of said public power district for the purpose of campaigning against the election of a candidate,” in violation of Nebraska Law Section 49-14, 101, 02(2).

Van Buskirk was subsequently elected in 2010 to the NRPPD Board to serve a six-year term, unseating a 12-year incumbent. The NRPPD Board will hold its regularly scheduled meeting this Thursday, April 26, however this matter is not on the current agenda. More information will be presented as it is received, pending the appeals process.

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