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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

With rate cases pending, PSC aide was in near-daily contact with utilities

30

September

With a rate case pending, Bill Garner, the top aide to Public Service Commission Chairman Matt Carter, was in near-daily contact with Florida Power & Light officials. Since our online story was malfunctioning this morning, here's the full story:


The aide to the chairman of the state's Public Service Commission made more than 100 cellphone calls to Florida Power & Light officials in the past six months, in the midst of the company's request to increase rates.

   William Garner, who is on leave as aide to PSC Chairman Matthew Carter pending an
investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, wasn't the only PSC staffer in
frequent contact with the utility lobbyists and their Tallahassee officials. So was Ryder Rudd, the PSC lobbyist who resigned after he admitted to attending a Kentucky Derby party at the home of FPL Vice President Ed Tancer.

   The PSC has been under fire after The Herald/Times reported that several staffers gave their BlackBerry PIN messaging codes to an FPL lawyer, allowing text messages to bypass the state record-keeping system. Some messages have been retrieved at the Herald/Times' request, but most have been lost.

   The state police has since begun an investigation and two state senators have called for hearings and a move to revamp the structure of the state's utility regulator to diminish influence by utility companies.

   Meanwhile, Carter and fellow Commissioner Katrina McMurrian await word on whether Gov. Charlie Crist will reappoint them to another four-year term or choose among four other candidates for their jobs. The governor must decide by Saturday.

   The PSC provided the Herald/Times with the records of the commissioners' state-provided phones and those of their aides after nearly three weeks of requests. PSC commissioners admittedly use their private cellphones for state business, but the agency said those are not in its jurisdiction to make public.

   The records made public show that Garner called either FPL lobbyist Jorge Chamizo or FPL attorneys Natalie Smith and Ken Hoffman 107 times between Feb. 23 and Aug. 20, after the company filed its request to raise customer rates. Rudd, who was director of strategic analysis for the PSC, made at least 48 calls to those same people, and to Tancer and FPL lobbyist Paul Hamilton during that period.

   While the other four commission aides spoke to utility lobbyists occassionally, none had the near-daily contact of Garner, who also contacted Chamizo seven times over three different weekends. Neither Garner nor Chamizo returned calls seeking comment.

   Carter said Tuesday he figures that Garner needed to be in touch with utility company lawyers to coordinate getting commissioners to the public hearings around the state as part of the FPL and Progress Energy hearings. Both companies are seeking about a 30 percent increase in their base rates beginning next year.

    State law prohibits PSC commissioners from direct contact with officials from utility companies on pending rate cases because they are expected to act like judges when ruling on electric, sewer and water rates. Commission aides are also banned from being a conduit for that communication.

   The cellphone logs are evidence of "a tremendous double-standard'' being practiced at the PSC, said Steve Stewart, a Tallahassee businessman who has intervened in the FPL rate case on behalf of a Sarasota customer.

   Stewart said that when he made an attempt to speak to Garner about procedure during a break in the rate-case hearing, Garner documented the exchange and entered it into the record as an "ex-parte'' communication -- meaning one out of public view.

   "There's been a history of the aides being a conduit for utilities and this shows that it's happening," Stewart said. He said that if his own conversation with Garner was sensitive enough to be written up, Garner's conversations with FPL staffers should have been documented as well.

    According to the cellphone records, none of the commissioners used their state-provided cellphones to contact the utility companies.

   PSC Commissioner Nathan Skop's aide, Bill McNulty, had eight phone conversations in February and March with FPL lawyer Ken Hoffman and FPL consultant Lila Jaber, and had five calls with Progress Energy lobbyist Paul Lewis in February, March and July.

   Commssioner Lisa Edgar's aide, Roberta Bass, who is also on paid leave pending an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, also have phone conversations with Chamizo using her state-supplied phone once in March and twice in July.

   McMurrian's aide, Lorena Holley, who as recently as 2007 worked in the same Tallahassee lawfirm as FPL attorney Ken Hoffman, and Commissioner Nancy Argenziano's former aide, Larry Harris, appeared to use their state-issued Blackberries for phone calls infrequently and appeared to make no calls to utility officials.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 3:20pm]

    

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