Politics: It can be a bloody sport

By Buck Traxler, I-O Editor

This past week there was a story floating around about Rep. Llew Jones using his position on the House Appropriations Committee to get $475,000 in stimulus funds for a biomass energy study and starting a company to get that money.

To fully understand the complications of the story, you have to go back almost two years when Rep. Jones and Rep. Chase Vincent of Libby had a discussion about the economic problems that Western Montana and specifically the Flathead were in.

Ultimately their conversation led to the possibility of using biomass plants (making electricity out of wood products).

Along that line Jones talked to and convinced developers from Balfore Beatty-Parson’s Brinkerhoff to visit the Flathead area to see about the possibility of establishing biomass plant(s). Brinkerhoff is the world’s largest engineering firm with over 50,000 employees and has developed energy projects spanning the globe.

Eventually it was the general consensus of Brinkerhoff and Transfield Services, another huge engineering firm and Environomics, a Libby firm with biomass experience that the project could work.

However, to bring a aboard an investor who would shell out approximately $200 million for the project, an extensive feasibility study would be needed, one that looked at and addressed all issues.

Jones noted that a good study might see one or more biomass plants go in. This could put up to 400 loggers back to work as well as employ about 50 people. “This offered incredible possibilities for the most environmentally devastated portion of Montana,” Jones said.

After the 2009 legislature session came to an end the Department of Commerce was in charge of distributing grants and funding money that were included in HB-645, the stimulus funding bill.

At this point, Jones became concerned about conflicts from his role as an elected official and being on the Appropriations Committee.

He wrote (emails), of which the I-O, has copies of, to the Commissioner of Political Practices and the Legislative Code Commissioner about being an investor in a company that applied for Federal Programs and grants.

Replies to Jones indicate it was not a problem as long as the grants were awarded competitively and he did “not assert undue influence in the process.”

Jones says, “Hindsight being what it is, I wish I had given more consideration to the possible negative perception, but my caution was offset by my excitement in that Parson’s and Transfield were willing to bring their credibility to Montana and willing to do the feasibility study, providing they had a host company.”

As it turns out that host company is Porter Bench energy, a company that Jones and his wife Carole are involved in and which Ted Kronebusch of Kronebusch Electric in Conrad is the CEO.

Porter Bench was one of eight companies that applied for a grant -  which was written by Brinkerhoff and Jones notes he has not even read it, nor did he know the scorers or scoring process for the grant.

In the end, $300,000 was awarded to the team assembled by Porter Bench. Of that amount, $280,000 is directed to sub contractors and $20,000 goes to Project Management of Porter bench for contract legal work.

Jones add, “I am not versed in biomass and did not bill any hours to this process, nor do I plan to.”

It should be noted that, at least openly, Democrats are not taking pot shots or commenting on this except of Gov. Brain Schweitzer who said in part, “This doesn’t look good.”  However, he also noted that he is not sure he would have intervened to stop money from going to businesses tied to the two Republicans (Jones and Vincent).

And the Great Falls Tribune pointed out that teachers vote on spending bills that send money to school districts and can influence salaries, trial lawyers vote on bills that affect the legal system and those in the energy industries vote on bills that affect development — along with a laundry list of other potential conflicts.

Politics: It’s a bloody sport.