Attorney General Bob Butterworth joined with Southern Bell on Thursday to ask that Public Service Commissioner Tom Beard disqualify himself from participating in all matters that involve Florida's largest telephone company.
"The public's confidence has been shaken by revelations of Commissioner Beard's relationships with two Southern Bell employees," Butterworth said. "Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is cause for alarm."
The action is unprecedented. Never before have parties on both sides of a PSC case requested a commissioner disqualify himself, Butterworth said.
"Even though he (Beard) is denying that his vote was a conflict of interest at all, the test is really the appearance of impropriety," Butterworth said. "There is no doubt in our minds or in Southern Bell's that Tom Beard should not be sitting on matters pertaining to Southern Bell."
The motion will go directly to Beard. If he refuses to recuse himself, it would go to the other four PSC commissioners. If they do not come up with at least three votes to disqualify him, Butterworth said he will ask the Florida Supreme Court to order Beard to recuse himself.
"Obviously until I see it, I can't comment on it," Beard said Thursday night after returning home from a utility regulators' convention in Orlando. "In one sense it strikes me as peculiar that the whole world knows about it before I do."
Butterworth said his office has found no direct evidence to refute Southern Bell's stance that none of its managers or employees has sought to influence Beard improperly. Nor should the motion be construed as an indication that any of Beard's prior votes in Southern Bell matters were influenced improperly, the motion reads.
But Butterworth emphasized that the public should not have to worry about the impartiality of a Public Service Commissioner who sits in judgment over utility cases that involve billions of dollars.
"It is a precedent and it is the biggest utility in the state of Florida saying from now and in the future, we agree the appearance of impropriety is the standard for PSC commissioners," Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci said.
Southern Bell president Joe Lacher and BellSouth vice president and general counsel Roger Flynt signed off on Bell's participation in the recusal motion, Southern Bell spokeswoman Wendie Feinberg said. BellSouth is Southern Bell's parent company.
Did Beard participate in the decision?
"No contact was made (with Commissioner Beard) before the agreement was reached," Feinberg said. "After the motion was made public, we notified Beard as a courtesy. We alerted him to the fact of the filing and what it contained."
Butterworth's office began investigating Beard on April 22, after reading in the Times that the clothing of a Southern Bell employee and her daughter had been taken from the bedroom closet of the commissioner's home during a burglary. In a sworn statement to Leon County sheriff's deputies, Beard described the Bell employee, Alma Paruolo, as his girlfriend.
A few days later, Mary Daudelin, a staff manager for BellSouth in Atlanta, confirmed she dated Beard in 1991 and 1992.
Telephone records showed calls on Beard's state credit card made from Paruolo's home and calls on Beard's PSC lines to Daudelin's home and office. Depositions also revealed socializing between Beard and two Southern Bell regulatory officials.
Beard, Paruolo and Daudelin have denied repeatedly discussing PSC or Southern Bell cases.
Beard had told Southern Bell's president that he was dating a Southern Bell employee, but he did not tell anybody at the PSC. Butterworth said Beard should have done so.
"None of us ever knew about the dating until we opened up a newspaper a few weeks back," Butterworth said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting its own investigation of Beard's relationships with the Bell women and of his state travel and telephone records. The FDLE inquiry is expected to go on a few more weeks.
Public Counsel Jack Shreve said he plans to pursue more information toward filing his own motion to recuse Beard.
"I agree with the attorney general's goal on this for recusal," Shreve said, "though I declined to sign on it. I have not gotten to the point yet where I know exactly what my action would be, and we're going to make our decision at whatever time we feel is appropriate."
There have been only two other attempts to remove a Public Service commissioner from presiding over specific cases in the history of the regulatory panel. The commission voted against both motions.
This is the first time a major investor-owned utility has asked a PSC member to disqualify himself, Butterworth said.
It is also the first time Butterworth and Southern Bell have been on the same side. They have been adversaries on rate cases and on investigations into allegations of fraud and records falsifications in the company's business practices.
Butterworth said he was surprised how fast Southern Bell executives agreed to join the recusal motion, drafted by Bell's counsel and amended by Butterworth's staff.
It's easy to see why the motion is amenable to Bell executives, who are anxious to see the controversy conclude. In the past, Bell spokespeople have described Beard as fair and impartial and said Bell had no problem with Beard's voting on their issues.
The wording of the motion repeatedly absolves Bell of any wrongdoing and describes publicity in the case that has led to the appearance of impropriety.
Gov. Lawton Chiles supports Butterworth's recusal motion, said Ron Sachs, his communications director. The governor does not want to take action against Beard, if any, until the FDLE finishes its investigation.