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The blatant Beard problem

Public Service Commissioner Tom Beard still doesn't get it. But at least Florida's attorney general knows a conflict of interest when he sees one, and how serious its implications can be.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth's office has announced it plans to file a motion asking the PSC to recuse Beard from cases involving Southern Bell Telephone Co. What Butterworth understands, as does the utility, which joined the attorney general in the motion, is basic: Beard's relationships with employees of the phone company create at least the appearance of a conflict. That appearance alone should disqualify him from voting on Bell cases.

Butterworth addresses the heart of the matter. With all the publicity, it is inevitable that "the public does question the propriety of Commissioner Beard's conduct," the motion states. How can the PSC be effective if public confidence in the commission's ability to protect ratepayers' interests is lost?

A loss of public trust apparently is no concern of Tom Beard. His position since the disclosure of a romantic relationship with Alma Paruolo, a Southern Bell supervisor, and other friendships with Bell employees has been defiant. "My personal life is my personal life, and please let me have it," he told a Times reporter.

If the commissioner thinks his decision not to seek reappointment to the PSC when his term expires in January takes care of the problem, he is mistaken. His arrogance and defiance are insulting to the people of Florida.

At the very least, the PSC should grant the attorney general's request to remove Beard from cases involving Southern Bell. Even Gov. Lawton Chiles, who so far has refused to utter a critical word against the commissioner, agrees that Beard should not be sitting in judgment of Southern Bell matters.

Both the commissioner and the governor have yet to face the real issue. Tom Beard no longer deserves to serve the public as a utility regulator. It's not enough for him just to step aside in Bell cases; he should step down from the Public Service Commission.

That would be the greatest public service he could perform at this point.