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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate committee scolds Art Graham but gives all four commissioners approval

28

March

PSC Commission Chairman Art Graham came under fire by a Senate committee Monday for having drinks in a hotel lobby for an hour with the executive and lawyer from Aqua Utilities after the water company had filed a rate case before the PSC.

"One thing I have not done is speak to this utility about anything that's pending before me,'' Graham told the Senate Communications, Energy and Utilities Committee which was reviewing whether to confirm him as commissioner. He dismissed the conversation at a Washington, D.C. hotel lobby in February and said: "I'm never going to do anything that is going to put this commission in a bad light."

Graham blamed former PSC commissioner Nathan Skop for "throwing rocks" against him by dregging up the incident and told the committee to take newspaper reports about it "with a grain of salt. A lot of itmes it's skewed to make things worse than they are."

But that didn't satisfy Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the only member of the committee to vote against Graham's confirmation.

 "What you did was wrong. You sent the wrong message to the people in this state,'' Fasano said. "People in this state are tired of what they see at the Pubic Service Commission. What kind of message does that send?"

Fasano scolded Graham for failing to recognize he "did something wrong" and Sen. Evelyn Lynn chastised Graham for behavior that was "clearly unacceptable."

The committee nonetheless, moved ahead with the confirmation of Graham and three other commissioners, Eduardo Balbis, Julie Brown and Ron Brise.

Beside Graham, the treatment the committee gave them was in sharp contrast to the antagonistic treatment the same committee gave to former Gov. Charlie Crist's appointees to the Public Service Commission last year.

Fasano provided the only serious questions, grilling the commissioners about whether they support a commission rule to prohibit any conversation with utility executives while a rate case is pending. None of them agreed. Balbis declined an answer. Brise suggested that such a rule "wouldn't necessarily" make a difference in public perception, and Brown said she already operates according to a judicial canon and refrains from conversations with utility executives but wouldn't agree to a commission rule.

Graham refused to discussed the issue with reporters afterward, noting that there is a pending case about the incident before the Ethics Commission. Sipping a straw in a soft drink as he walked away from reporters, he said: "I have no further comment."

[Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011 5:27pm]

    

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