The private trough
Utility regulators attend a conference by the Public Service Commission funded by the companies the PSC regulates.
Published: Sunday, August 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 31, 2004 at 10:50 p.m.
A conference held by the Florida Public Service Commission for utility regulators was funded mostly by the companies that the PSC regulates. Those companies generously gave to support the conference because they are concerned with good government and want well-informed regulators.
OK, we made the last part of that up, although the first part of it is absolutely true.
The truth was uncovered by the Florida Commission on Ethics' examination of the 2002 annual meeting of the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Miami.
Anyone with anymore common sense than a bag of hammers knows that utility companies help fund conferences like this because the company execs want to hobnob with regulators. In the minds of some utility company leaders, "good government" means "little oversight."
What's surprising about the Ethics Commission's findings isn't that the regulated companies help fund such meetings and conferences, but the fact that they do most of the heavy lifting.
A projected budget for the event prepared by the PSC staff showed that nearly three out of four attendees would be from the utility industry, which was also expected to supply about 80 percent of the revenues.
Mike Twomey, attorney for Florida Utility watch, a consumer-advocacy group based in Tallahassee, said the utility companies' contribution amounted to a "huge percentage of the total budget. I was surprised at the percentages. These amounts appear to be substantially higher than what was previously reported."
The conference also came a few months before the PSC approved the largest phone-rate hike in state history.
In a startling finding, the Ethics Commission said Tuesday that it found enough evidence of ethics violations among four PSC members and said PSC commissioners should have known better than to go to a conference in an ocean-front hotel that was heavily financed by the utilities industry.
"What it boils down to is members of the Public Service Commission aren't supposed to accept anything of value from regulated industries and in this case they did," Phil Claypool, general counsel for the ethics commission, told the Orlando Sentinel.
The four commissioners - Braulio Baez, Rudy Bradley, Terry Deason and Lila Jaber - did not get a financial benefit from the conference, and did nothing wrong, said their attorney, Mark Herron. He said the commission findings were "an absurdity. How can someone give you something when it's already paid for?"
The Ethics Commission is barred by law from initiating its own investigations into questionable ethics practices. This one came about because a private citizen who read accounts of the meeting filed a complaint.
Claypool said an administrative hearing could take testimony, and recommend fines. The recommendations would have to go back to the Ethics Commission for approval, and then to the governor, Senate president and House speaker for final action.
The PSC members apparently think that since a registration fee was paid, there's nothing wrong with going to a conference that was almost entirely paid for by industries the PSC regulates. Consumers, however, have the right to expect that the members who serve on the commission try to be unbiased, and avoid actions that would give that appearance. In that respect, the PSC members don't get it.
To his credit, incoming Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, wants to tighten ethics laws. He told the Tallahassee Democrat this week that he wants to attack the problem from both ends by tightening ethics laws governing state officials and lobbyists.
He'll have help from Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon: "When citizen distrust of the PSC is at an all-time high, this is not a good thing."
Perhaps the Ethics Commission's continuing action will remind the members of the Public Service Commission what the first two words in their agency's name is.
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