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At the PSC, a confederacy of yes men — and women

The first thing we do is pass a truth-in-government law that changes the name of the Florida Public Service Commission to the Florida Utility Suckup Club.

The PSC hearing held in Tallahassee this past week was beyond embarrassing. It was billed as a review and vote on a proposed settlement with Duke Energy Florida to finalize who gets stuck paying for the $5 billion wasted by the company on the broken Crystal River and the proposed-then-canceled Levy County nuclear power plants.

The vote: 4 to 1 in favor of the settlement agreement. Duke Energy's Florida customers — victims would be a better word — will pay a whopping 64 percent, or $3.2 billion. Duke shareholders will pay just 20 percent, or $1 billion. The rest will be covered by an insurance policy.

This is a terrible precedent.

Customers who are captives of monopoly utilities never should bear the multibillion-dollar cost of screwups by their power company.

Florida government should never house so many whimpering officials beholden to cash-rich corporations.

Duke Energy should never advertise itself as a helpful energy company while charging Floridians vastly higher electricity rates than other big power companies in the state — and offering the worst customer service in the Southeast.

And Duke's top executives in North Carolina should never pitch the preposterous idea of extending the ruinous Florida law that forced customers to pay in advance for the Crystal River and Levy fiascoes to other types of utility projects.

The PSC hearing's outcome was no surprise. The state agency filled its hearing room with a small armada of Duke Energy executives skilled in deflecting questions or leading the hapless PSC into the weeds of nuclear engineering. Any goal of accountability was quickly lost.

Yet again, PSC commissioners used regulatory statutes as cover to ignore the rising outrage of Floridians who, finally, are catching on to the fact that they are patsies in a $5 billion debacle.

Protesters held signs outside the PSC hearing and threatened legal action if the commission approved the settlement. In St. Petersburg, two modest street-corner protests have been held outside Duke's Florida headquarters. The most recent rally was organized by the "$top Duke Rip-Off" coalition and included appearances by two state legislators from Pinellas County, Dwight Dudley and Cliff Zimmerman. Both are part of a small but rising grass roots legislative movement seeking to kill the nuclear advance fee law. It is an uphill battle.

Not once in the lengthy hearing did any of the five PSC commissioners demand that Duke Energy Florida explain how such a big company with so many resources could have blundered on both the Crystal River and Levy projects.

Among many foolish gems uttered by the commissioners, this one stood out.

"To speculate about negligence or fault on the part of Duke, I do believe there is no conclusive evidence here of any findings to support those allegations," said PSC Commissioner Julie Brown in her summary remarks at the settlement hearing.

No kidding, commissioner. No one at the PSC hearing bothered to raise the matter of negligence on a $5 billion debacle. Nobody pressed to see who was at fault. There is no "conclusive evidence" because nobody bothered to investigate before rubber-stamping the agreement.

Remember these commissioner names: Ronald Brise. Lisa Edgar. Art Graham. Julie Brown. Those four voted for this final settlement that makes Duke Energy customers in Florida pay 64 cents, and Duke Energy shareholders only 20 cents, for every $1 of the $5 billion spent on nuclear projects that will deliver no electricity.

Only one commissioner, Eduardo Balbis, chose not to vote for the settlement. But not even Balbis raised much of a fuss.

Take a moment. Can you think of another Florida mishap or botched deal that resulted in a waste of $5 billion?

Is it curious that nobody — not Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Cabinet, the leadership of the Florida Legislature, nor even our U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio or all our elected House members in Congress — has lifted a finger to protest one of the biggest ripoffs in the state's history?

For sure, state legislators are hiding, eager to avoid their role in this boondoggle. In 2006, they approved one of the worst pieces of legislation in state history, which allowed big power companies to charge customers in advance to build nuclear power plants. These projects have long been spurned by commercial banks and Wall Street financiers who recognized them as losers.

Those with the stomach to observe this PSC hearing saw a state agency outmanned and outsmarted by Duke Energy. Since buying Progress Energy last year, Duke has become the largest power company in the United States. With a like-sized wallet and ego.

I fear for Florida.

The state has lost its sense of checks and balances. It has lost its sense of responsibility to act as a watchdog against big money and big companies that now find it ever easier to get their way at the cost of the average Floridian.

There are a few voices expressing opposition. But they are faint and few.

"If Duke's proposed settlement is approved, the door will be slammed shut on any investigation into the alleged incompetence and malfeasance surrounding Crystal River 3 and the Levy nuclear plant," Rep. Dudley warned in his protest letter to the PSC.

Sorry, Rep. Dudley. Now that the deal is approved, don't let that door hit you on your way out.

"As a commissioner, you each took an oath and have a moral and legal obligation to make decisions in the best interest of the public and the consumer of this monopolized utility," wrote Ken Gagliano, one of many Duke customers before the hearing urging the PSC to reject the settlement. "None of us … would go to any place of business and pay a bill or invoice when we received nothing in return," he said.

Sorry, Ken. Now you will.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

PSC: The art of

ignoring consumers stuck with a big bill

How the five Public Service commissioners justified their 4-1 vote backing a settlement agreement with Duke Energy on who must pay for the $5 billion wasted on two failed nuclear power plants in Florida.

Ronald Brise

PSC chairman claimed settlement hearing rules did not allow involvement of actual consumers – including those the PSC just voted must pay $3.2 billion in higher rates for Duke Energy's failed nuclear projects. "We are looking at whether the company is prudent in what it is doing."

Trigaux's question: How many more billions must Duke charge customers for botched deals before it is to be judged imprudent?

Lisa Edgar

She "appreciated" consumer concerns but called them "beyond the purview" before the PSC hearing. "This settlement does provide rate stability and certainty over an extended period of years. That is in the interest of consumers."

Trigaux's question: Duke Energy Florida is about to charge customers more than $124 for 1,000 kilowatt hours of power, while Florida Power & Light customers will pay just over $100. If that's "rate stability," how can Edgar say that Duke's lack of a competitive price is "in the interest" of consumers?

Art Graham

He asked Duke Energy Florida president Alex Glenn if his company would participate in town meetings, if asked, to further explain details of the complex settlement. "Sure," Glenn replied, though it may prove unlikely such meetings will ever be requested.

Trigaux's question: If Graham spent so much of his precious question time asking about hearings for the public, why didn't he request them before when it counted?

Julie Brown

"Some view us as being between a rock and a hard place, but we have an opportunity here," said Brown. "This is an opportunity to stop the bleeding. With public interest at the forefront of my decision, I think the settlement agreement is the best alternative we have."

Trigaux's question: Charging Florida customers $3.2 billion of $5 billion wasted by the company "stops" the bleeding? By then, customers will be nearly drained.

Eduardo Balbis

The sole commissioner to vote against the settlement agreement, he went further to ask what else could have been done to improve the deal. But he stopped short when asking the toughest line of questions to the Office of Public Counsel — suggesting it was time for lunch. He never followed up.

Trigaux's question: Is this vote against the settlement an act of courage and common sense, or is this a ceremonial protest to look good, knowing full well the PSC would rubber-stamp the settlement as is?

At the PSC, a confederacy of yes men — and women 10/18/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 18, 2013 5:53pm]

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