TALLAHASSEE — The fate of two Public Service Commissioners appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist as "fresh blood'' on the embattled panel appeared to be in jeopardy Tuesday when a Senate committee adjourned without voting on their confirmations.
Commissioner David Klement stood at the podium being grilled by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee when Senate Republican Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla abruptly called for the committee to adjourn. With no more meetings scheduled, the jobs of Klement and Commissioner Benjamin "Steve'' Stevens remain in limbo.
It was another shot from lawmakers at Gov. Charlie Crist, who angered the utility companies when he appointed Klement and Stevens from a list given to him by a legislatively-controlled nominations council. He said he picked them because they had not worked for the utilities or the PSC, which had been rocked by a conflict-of-interest scandal.
Despite Tuesday's setback, Crist remained optimistic. He said that after the vote, Senate President Jeff Atwater's office called to say the appointments would move forward, "and I believe that they will.''
The dustup was more evidence of the increasingly hostile battle between Crist and his fellow Republicans, and a sign of an internal fight brewing between Atwater and incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
"I've never seen the Senate at such a low point and what they did is a shameless act,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a staunch Crist ally who called for a vote to confirm Klement and Stevens shortly before the committee adjourned. "The entire Senate should be embarrassed by this.''
Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, opposed confirming Crist's appointments while Atwater, a Republican from North Palm Beach who is running for chief financial officer, has made it clear he wants them approved.
When Sen. JD Alexander, chairman of the committee, refused to recognize Fasano's motion for a vote on Klement, Fasano became enraged.
"I think that is so inappropriate,'' Fasano said. "You have a gentleman (Klement) standing here who wants to serve the state of Florida, and you rudely allow (adjournment) without even allowing a confirmation of the gentleman.''
Atwater later told Fasano that he wants Crist's appointees confirmed in the next week and he will work to get House approval of a PSC reform bill to ban off-the-record conversations between the PSC and utilities.
"I would have liked to see Sen. Alexander finish the agenda,'' Atwater said. "I think he sensed the concerns in the room at the moment that it was probably the most productive thing to stand down and look at that another day.''
Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson noted that Atwater is serving his last term and that his successor, Haridopolos, "doesn't like the way (he's) taking the Senate.''
Alexander criticized the governor for putting pocketbook issues before forward-thinking regulation and said he wouldn't vote for either Klement or Stevens.
"I don't think they're qualified,'' he said, adding that he disagrees with Crist's philosophy. "It's put us at great risk and it's time that I have to stand up and say no.''
Klement and Stevens will continue to serve on the PSC but, if the Senate fails to confirm them by the end of session next week, both men will have to reapply for their jobs. They would have to go through the nomination and appointment process and be approved by a new governor before facing the Senate once more next year.
Crist acknowledged Tuesday that the committee's move may have been payback for his veto of a teacher tenure bill and another on political committees for legislative leaders. But he bristled at Alexander's suggestion that his picks were unqualified and the state was being ruined by his populism.
"It was abundantly clear to many people that there was a problem at the PSC, that there was not enough transparency and openness in that process, and that we needed new blood there,'' the governor told reporters.
As for ruining the state, Crist added with sarcasm: "Wow. It's ruinous to be for the people?''
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Steve Bousquet and John Frank contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.