By Ang Gilchrist
The recent meeting of the Northwest Rural Public Power District’s board of directors was full of tension, as board members and patrons discussed the recent ruling involving illegal use of public funds for campaigning.
The ruling involved a complaint filed by Mike Van Buskirk against NRPPD general manager Mr. Rolland Skinner and Mr. Les Tlustos, consumer services director. The Accountability and Disclosure Commission recently determined that Skinner and Tlustos were guilty of spending public funds to run campaign ads against Van BusKirk dealing with wind energy, and fined them each $2,000.
Terry Curtiss, Alliance, Neb., represents NRPPD as legal counsel, and is also representing Skinner and Tlustos as individuals in their cases against Van Buskirk. When asked if there was a conflict of interest, Curtiss stated that Van Buskirk has never before raised the issue of conflict of interest, adding that he only learned there was a concern about that just a day or two prior to the meeting.
When asked about the district’s direct involvement with the lawsuit, Curtiss answered, “The district has had nothing whatsoever to do with the defense.” He then went on to say that NRPPD had insurance that possibly was going to cover the fines of Mr. Skinner and Mr. Tlustos.
Van Buskirk made a motion for the board to seek independent counsel to review the situation, but the motion died due to no second from the other members. One board member, Wayne Cobb, said the case is between Van Buskirk, Tlustos and Skinner, stating, “We’re not in it. Why would we hire counsel?”
Public concern was expressed by many in attendance, with one guest stating “This appears to be a sitcom of impropriety.” Another thought it was a good idea to seek independent counsel.
Curtiss said that he was ultimately responsible for the ads running during the campaign time, stating he was approached by the NRPPD board about whether the ads being run violated Nebraska’s electioneering laws. Curtiss told them he didn’t believe they did, and the board acted on his advice and allowed the ads to continue, even after Van Buskirk requested they be pulled from the air. “These ads do not discuss an election. These ads do not discuss a candidate. They are ads that provide information,” Curtiss said.
A concerned customer then asked if it really was necessary to be spending patrons money on advertising when NRPPD was the only supplier of sources in the area. It was expressed that the advertising money could be spent to print the minutes of the board meetings in the local newspapers, instead of their current method of online publication.
When questioned about the boards’ knowledge of the ads being ran, board president, Gary Fuchser, said the board knew Tlustos and Skinner were running ads, but did not know the specific content of those ads. “The board sets a budget for advertising, and the employees determine how to use that budget,” he said. He did not know the specifics of how much money was spent during each month for advertising. The board then voted to cease all forms of advertising until this case was resolved.
Skinner and Tlustos have appealed the commission’s ruling, and the $2,000 fines the two men were ordered to pay have been stayed while the appeal process continues, which could take up to six months.