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Messages offer insight into Argenziano, workings at PSC

TALLAHASSEE — As Public Service Commissioner Nancy Argenziano listened to utility hearings via teleconference from her North Carolina home, her fingers moved constantly, firing off a stream of messages on her BlackBerry to her chief aide.

Thousands of messages.

Some of them were nitpicking about the sound system; others were critiques of the utility arguments; some were commands and questions for her aide, Larry Harris; and some were snide remarks about other commissioners.

"What a jerk," she said, referring to fellow Commissioner Nathan Skop, during a July 17 hearing. On July 14, she asked her aides to "be downstairs watching faces especially (Commissioner Lisa Edgar)'' and report back if they saw any "rolling of eyes'' when Argenziano spoke. She laughed when her aide referred to another member as a "mean-spirited anorexic." And on Aug. 17, Argenziano wrote: "Got to say Skop did good all day. Wants to be friends again."

The e-mail records and instant messages obtained by the Times/Herald from staff and commissioners at Florida's utility regulator offer a glimpse into the personal relationships at the embattled agency, and a window into the unbridled thoughts of Argenziano.

The former state senator has called for an investigation of the Legislature's influence on the PSC and accused many at the agency of being "too cozy'' with the utilities they regulate. She said she worked from home for the past several months because she was recovering from complications from breaking her leg while vacationing in North Carolina.

Her more than 2,400 BlackBerry PIN messages were retrieved Sept. 10, along with those from other commissioners, after the Times/Herald revealed that commission aides had given the PIN codes of commissioners to a Florida Power & Light attorney. PIN messages — PIN stands for Personal Identification Numbers — bypass the state server and, at the PSC, were not intended to be recorded.

Of the nearly 3,000 PIN messages recovered, Argenziano had more than 2,400.

Argenziano's PIN messages reveal a distrust of fellow commissioners, especially Edgar and Skop, a constant skepticism about the veracity of Florida Power & Light's data, and a double standard: Argenziano insisted that her aide write down all communications with lobbyists, but she relied on communicating with him through BlackBerry PIN messages that didn't leave a paper trail and a Google e-mail account whose data resides outside the state server.

That contradiction, and the fact that Argenziano held herself out as an outspoken critic of the PSC, prompted Associated Industries of Florida to question her impartiality in the rate case and call for the agency's inspector general to investigate her.

The records "show that she is violating her code of conduct, her oath of office, and she's had ex parte communications with people that she's not supposed to have had," said Barney Bishop, president of AIF, a business lobbying group that has sided with Florida Power & Light in its request to raise base rates by $1.3 billion.

Argenziano told the Times/Herald that she did not have a PSC computer and therefore had to rely on her primary e-mail account, that she "instructed my aide to have no contact with lobbyists, not some cute reliance on edited notes,'' and that she listened "critically to all parties' witnesses. If you construe that as skepticism, there is nothing I can do."

State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, has also called for an inspector general's investigation, but said the inquiry should include Edgar, who exchanged three PIN messages with utilities lobbyist Jorge Chamizo during the two-month period in 2008 when the PSC inadvertently recorded those messages.

Records show that Edgar, Argenziano and Commissioner Chairman Matthew Carter also used their private cell phones to conduct what appears to be PSC business.

State law requires that public officials "create a record'' any time they use their private e-mail accounts and private BlackBerrys for public business, said Joe Jacquot, chief of staff for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum.

He convened a workshop last week to help state agencies learn how to retain and record the BlackBerry PIN messages used by Argenziano and others, since most agencies let them disappear off the devices.

Carter rejected AIF and Lopez-Cantera's request to investigate Argenziano and Edgar on Friday, saying the inspector general does not have jurisdiction over commissioners, only over the agency's staff.

Argenziano said she always considered the messages public record, although she never expected them to be available online. AIF has posted Argenziano's messages on its Web site but has not included the messages from other commissioners or their staff members.

Argenziano defended her messages. "That's my opinion, and I have a right to it. There's no law against speaking to my aide. It's not like I was talking to the entities involved in the case. No laws were broken."

The PIN records show that Edgar also sent e-mails to her aide during hearings. During the FPL rate case on Aug. 27, for example, when an FPL witness was being grilled by opposing attorneys, Edgar sent aide Roberta Bass the definition of psychopath: "uninhibited gratification in criminal, sexual or aggressive impulses."

Edgar told the Times/Herald the e-mail was to follow up on a previous conversation they had had "about incidents of violence in the workplace." She would not elaborate.

In 2008, when the BlackBerry messages were inadvertently backed up and recorded as the PSC was switching cellphone contracts, Edgar is shown to have had three messages with Chamizo, the lobbyist for FPL and Progress Energy, asking him for information.

The records also show that Bass and Bill Garner, Carter's top aide, had an open door for utility executives who wanted to stop by. Phone records and messages from Garner revealed a close friendship with Chamizo.

The PSC has since disabled the instant messaging functions of its state-issued BlackBerrys, and the agency has banned the use of the devices in the hearing rooms.

"Never put in writing what you wouldn't want your mother to see," said Rep. Dave Murzin, chairman of the PSC Nominating Council, which nominates members to the commission.

"Some people are quick tempered and get angered quickly. Some people say stupid things. Writing a law that says you can't do this doesn't mean it's going to fix it," he said. "If the public perceives it and the press writes it, we are guilty."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

A sample of messages

When the Public Service Commission changed its BlackBerry accounts in March 2008, the agency downloaded all information on the phones to make sure no data were lost in the transition.

Included in the data sweep were the following private messages, sent through the BlackBerry PIN service. Because PIN messages were normally not retained on the server, staffers and commissioners could use them to avoid having them scrutinized under the public records laws. These offer a window into the usually unrecorded conversations:

• From Progress Energy Attorney Paul Lewis to Commissioner Lisa Edgar's aide, Roberta Bass, on March 11, 2008: "Sorry I missed your call. Alex glenn in town wed and thur. We wanted to stop by and visit thur after lunch on the 2 nuke cases. Maybe around 130 if u r open Paul''

Bass replied: "Hey 1:30 works for me. Come visit''

Lewis: "Sounds good. C ya then''

(Bass told the Times/Herald that this was a meeting scheduled to discuss two cases that Progress Energy had filed on March 11, 2008.)

• From FPL and Progress Energy lobbyist Jorge Chamizo to Bill Garner, the chief policy aide to Chairman Matt Carter, sent March 4, 2008: "What up Blue? Whats news with u dawg?

Garner: "Just trying to figure out how I can get an insider like LHo has with her boy KHoff'' (a reference to PSC Commissioner Katrina McMurrian's aide Lorena Holley, who worked in the Tallahassee law firm with FPL vice president Ken Hoffman before Hoffman was placed on staff.)

Chamizo: "U got me dude although not any insider."

Garner: "I got you babe."

Chamizo: "Could u share a draft copy of your FEC presentation on energy efficiency and decoupling?"

Garner: "When I have one."

• From Edgar to Chamizo, sent: Feb. 21, 2008, during legislative committee week: "Hey. Had to take the last flight back last night. What have I missed?"

Chamizo: "Not a whole lot."

Edgar: "Plse let me know if there is anything of interest from the discussion or otherwise in Murzin comm on interim report or with Bennet on appt process bill."

• Chamizo: "They passed out Bennetts psc bill, in the end i see that bill as final product, dont see House approach getting any steam."

(Edgar told the Times/Herald that she didn't remember the conversation , but it looks like a quick summary of some discussion at committee meetings.)

• From Chamizo to Garner Feb. 26, 2008: "Tomorrow let's rock out!''

(Garner did not respond to requests for comment.)

• From Commissioner Nathan Skop to his former chief aide Bridget Groom, March 10, 2008: "Pin me: Look up allegany energy, call and try to get a number for ann greely Also: Need number for twomey and peoples gas (lew)''

(Skop told the Times/Herald he was out of town and had received a call from a customer and wanted to help him by providing him the numbers directly. "It's important to do that kind of customer service," he said.)

• Commissioner Nancy Argenziano to Larry Harris, her chief aide, sent March 4, 2008, during a hearing: "Tell twomey to be ready'' a reference to AARP lawyer Mike Twomey.

Harris: "Got it."

(Argenziano said it was a reference to a meeting with Twomey who brought people in who do storage for natural gas. She had a short time to meet and wanted them to be ready "or forget the appointment." It was not related to any pending case and told them to bring the issue to the Legislature.)

Messages offer insight into Argenziano, workings at PSC 10/19/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:18am]
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