TALLAHASSEE — In a stunning rebuke to Gov. Charlie Crist and a victory for Florida's electric companies, the Florida Senate on Tuesday rejected the two men the governor named to the Public Service Commission to bring "fresh blood" to the embattled utilities panel.
In two votes that crossed party lines and geographic regions, the Senate voted 21-17 to oppose the confirmation of former newspaperman David Klement, then voted 23-14 against the confirmation of Benjamin "Steve" Stevens, former accountant for the Escambia County sheriff.
Senators who spoke against the confirmation said their primary reasons were that the men were not qualified for the job on the utility regulation board or that the selected appointees were not racially diverse.
Both are white.
Klement and Stevens were appointed by Crist in October after revelations that some PSC members and staffers had become too close to the utilities the agency regulates. A legislatively controlled nominating panel sent Crist six possible appointees for two positions, only two of whom had not worked in the utility industry or at the PSC.
Crist said he was "deeply disappointed" by the votes, particularly claims that the two were not qualified.
"I don't know how you can [say] that with a straight face — when it's the Legislature that submitted the names to me in the first place," he said. "It's hard to pass the smell test."
Klement, a former editorial page editor for the Bradenton Herald, released a strongly worded statement calling the confirmation process a farce.
"Today's vote by the Florida Senate was an example of government at its worst — using vital public regulatory appointments to get back at the governor and to satisfy the wishes of the utility industry," Klement said.
He warned that utility customers should "hold on to your wallets. Because it seems clear that the Senate leadership is bent on appointing utility-friendly commissioners to the PSC. Make no mistake, this vote was not about ability, it was about money — and politics."
He said "many qualified, honest professionals will think long and hard before accepting a full-time state appointment in the future."
Stevens could not be reached for comment.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, who voted for Klement and Stevens, defended the result and said he was pleased that the 20-minute debate was productive and open.
"It was clear we didn't have the votes to be able to confirm these candidates, and there were a myriad of reasons," he said. "I can understand his [Klement's] disappointment but there was certainly an open and fair debate on their credentials and on the diversity of the selections that were made."
After the Senate voted to reject Klement, the normally bustling Capitol Rotunda took on a hushed silence as lobbyists listened to the second vote. Last week, both men failed to be confirmed by a Senate committee, but Atwater brought the issue to the full Senate, a move that made the rejection harsher for Crist, who has antagonized Republican legislators by vetoing bills and considering a U.S. Senate race as an independent candidate.
"For Mr. Klement's sake, I regret that it came to this but I think it's an important decision," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee, who spoke forcefully against the confirmations.
The Senate rejected Stevens with no debate. By law, both men have 30 days to vacate their jobs and the PSC Nominating Council must reconvene to come up with six new nominees for the governor's consideration.
Pushing lawmakers to reject Crist's appointees was a priority for Florida's largest electric utilities, particularly Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, whose requests for rate increases were rejected by the PSC in January after Klement and Stevens took office.
Sen. Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who has lobbied for FPL, led the effort to defeat the appointees in the Senate because he said they failed to reflect the racial diversity of the state.
"If we approve these two appointments and ratify what the governor has done, what we're saying is it's okay to have one of the most powerful boards not look like Florida," Smith said. "Let's send a message that says, 'Governor, try again.' "
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, urged senators to approve Klement.
"What did these two 'bad' individuals do?" he asked. "They actually said publicly they were not going to vote raise your rates. Guess what? The power companies said we don't want them up here, so the power companies started staying 'Hey, let's start working the crowd. Maybe we can get rid of them.' "
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was disappointed in his colleagues and called it "a win by the high-powered electric companies."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.