Public Service Commissioner Tom Beard announced Monday that he will "temporarily refrain" from voting on any matters related to Southern Bell until the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concludes its criminal investigation of him.
Beard released his statement in response to a request filed jointly Friday by Southern Bell and Attorney General Bob Butterworth that Beard disqualify himself.
"Pending a final report from FDLE, I have made this decision to allow commission work to continue unabated, to allow my fellow commissioners to continue with the business matters at hand and to provide the FDLE the necessary time to complete its final investigation into this matter," Beard said.
The recusal motion said Beard should disqualify himself from voting on any Southern Bell matter to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest created by his romance with a Southern Bell supervisor and a previous relationship with a BellSouth manager. There are about 100 items filed with the PSC that involve Bell.
Beard said he would not disqualify himself, but he also said he would not vote on Southern Bell issues. Asked if that was legal, PSC General Counsel Rob Vandiver said he needs time to review the law.
Nor was PSC Executive Director William Talbott sure about the ramifications of Beard's announcement.
"I'm not sure I even know what his release means," Talbott said. "I'm not sure I know what "temporary' means and I don't know what implications it has. He hasn't shared that with me."
"I hope it leads to the next step, which is to recuse himself, and brings this issue to a conclusion so the commission can get on with their business," Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci said.
The attorney general and Southern Bell's call for Beard's recusal has nothing to do with the FDLE's criminal investigation, which includes a review of Beard's state travel, telephone records and personal financial records, Antonacci pointed out.
Beard's temporary decision has the effect of stalling his response to the motion that he disqualify himself. It also created confusion at the PSC as Beard removed himself as the prehearing officer for a case involving Southern Bell.
PSC Chairman J. Terry Deason, who didn't learn of Beard's decision until a few minutes before noon, scrambled to replace Beard on the case. The confusion delayed the prehearing an hour.
If Beard had shown up to conduct the prehearing for the case, which is scheduled to begin next week, Southern Bell lawyers could have requested Beard recuse himself.
But Beard dodged that showdown. He also dodged a speedy response to the recusal motion, which the attorney general's office had planned to present to members of the PSC at their regular meeting today. Six Bell issues are scheduled for PSC votes.
"We think that Commissioner Beard has taken a good step and we will wait to see what happens next," Southern Bell spokeswoman Wendie Feinberg said. "We have asked him to recuse himself from everything that involves us."
In his statement, Beard emphasized that state investigations of his relationships with people who work for utilities he regulates have failed to turn up any evidence of wrongdoing.
Beard said that although he won't vote on Bell cases now, he doesn't plan to refrain from voting on generic telephone cases that also involve Bell.
"I am dealing with this for now," Beard said in a brief interview. "This is not a long thing I have to look at each and every case" before determining whether or not to vote.