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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate moves bill to tighten talk between utilities and regulators



    An hour-long conversation in D.C. a hotel bar with the head of a small Florida water company that wants a rate increase has gotten Public Service Commission Chairman Art Graham in hot water with customers.
    Now the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee wants to impose a fine on future conversations between utility officials and the commissioners and their staff who regulate them.
    The bill by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, would require that PSC commissioners adopt the same standard of behavior as Florida Supreme Court justices -- requiring them to refrain from any discussions involving cases pending before them or cases expected to come before them.
    It extends the so-called “ex parte rule” to the commissioner’s direct staff in an attempt to rein in the texting and BlackBerry messaging that clouded the reputation of previous commissioners in previous years.

    The committee approved the bill unanimously and, although Fasano originally had no companion to his bill, House leaders offered him some help Monday and introduced a committee bill mirroring his legislation in the House State Affairs Committee.
    The PSC was criticized in 2009 after a staffer partied at the home of of a Florida Power & Light executive during the company’s pending rate case. Other FPL lobbyists and company officials exchanged BlackBerry messages with the PSC commission staff using a system that avoids a paper trail.
    Fasano filed the bill in response to the incidents and, while it passed 39-1 in the Senate last year, it died in the House. If enacted, it would impose a five of up to $5,000 for any party involved in the banned communication.
    Meanwhile, the committee recommended Graham for confirmation to his PSC post last week, but only after chastising him for what one senator called poor judgment for sitting in the hotel bar and carrying on the hour-long conversation with Aqua Utilities, which serves 16,000 customers in 18 Florida counties.
     Graham acknowledged he had the meeting in the lobby but denied they talked about business. “I did not sit there the entire time talking to the Aqua case,” he said. "...I have not spoken to this utility about anything that comes before me for a vote."
    The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported in March that Graham and PSC Commissioner Lisa Edgar both spoke with FPL attorney Ken Hoffman at a cocktail reception held at the Washingtion, D.C meeting of the National Association of Utility Commissioners. 
    The paper reported that commissioners Eduardo Balbis and Ron Brise also attended the conference but said they refrained from talking to the utility representatives for more than five minutes.
    The incidents confirm the need for a law, Fasano said, because “there is a pattern of having cozy relationships with those that they regulate,’’ he said. “They should come under the same standards as judges. They should not be fraternizing with the executives of utility companies they regulate.’’ 
     Graham’s conversation with Aqua Utilities, which represents about 16,000 customers in 18 Florida counties and is seeking a $3.8 million rate increase, has prompted an ethics complaint against him by Zephyrhills resident and Aqua customer Frank Reams
      Another Zephryhills resident, Dave Bussey filed a petition with the PSC on Saturday to have Graham removed from the case claiming “Graham’s biased conduct, actions, and party admissions fail to maintain the appearance of impartiality.”
    He complained that Graham failed to attend any of the seven public hearings to hear customer concerns about the rate case but was willing to have drinks with the company’s chief executive.

[Last modified: Monday, April 4, 2011 6:52pm]


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