TRINITY — The money that Aloha Utilities removed last month from an escrow account without approval from state officials is back where it came from.
An aide to state Sen. Mike Fasano confirmed Friday that the money had been wired to the bank. Fasano, a former customer of Aloha, was outraged when Aloha revealed in a lawsuit filed last week that it had assumed possession of nearly $375,000 that remained after the private water company sold its assets to the Florida Governmental Utility Authority for $90.5 million.
The utility's 25,000 former customers in the Trinity and Seven Springs areas claimed the money represented earlier refunds and should be returned to them. Aloha said the money belonged to the company.
The Florida Public Service Commission was set to sort out who gets what. In the meantime, the money was sitting in an escrow account at a Regions Bank branch in Holiday.
Then on March 27, Aloha sued the PSC, saying it had no authority to decide the matter. The company asked a judge to hear the case and in its lawsuit revealed that it had the money. The company also asked the judge to order that the money be placed into the court registry until the case could be heard.
The news angered former customers. Fasano wrote letters to state chief financial officer Alex Sink and state Attorney General Bill McCollum asking for an investigation into how Aloha obtained the money without the PSC's approval.
Aloha's attorney said this week that the company did nothing wrong and that recent bank bailout laws had done away with the two-party check rule for such accounts.
Fasano said even if a loophole exists, the bank should have notified the PSC because it is a government agency. "We're glad the dollars are back," said Fasano, who still wants an investigation. "It's sad that customers had to go to extremes in order to get back what are the customers' dollars."
Wayne Forehand, a former customer and vocal critic, said such behavior was typical of Aloha.
"Isn't this the most amazing thing you've ever heard? Aloha has been so greedy all these years and they were paid a premium to get out of here. They got so rich, but they couldn't be happy with the $90.5 million."
Attorneys for Aloha could not be reached Friday.
It also was unclear whether the same money was being moved back into escrow or the bank or another party had reimbursed the account.
Fasano said Aloha should also be responsible for repaying any interest the money would have received had it remained in escrow.
Bank spokesman Tim Dayton said laws prohibit him from commenting on client transactions, but bank officials had been "working to resolve the matter to everyone's satisfaction."
PSC spokeswoman Cindy Muir said the case is on the agency's April 21 docket. Hearings begin at 9:30 a.m. and occur at the PSC's Tallahassee headquarters.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.