Ethics inquiry finds PSC, regulators on cozy terms

Published July 28, 2004|Updated Aug. 28, 2005

An ethics inquiry into a utility regulators meeting hosted two years ago by the Florida Public Service Commission shows that the event was mostly financed by the very companies the commission regulates.

According to documents released Tuesday by the Florida Commission on Ethics, regulated utilities sponsored eight of the 10 meals, receptions and breaks held during the 2002 annual meeting of the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in Miami.

In addition, a projected budget prepared by the PSC staff showed that 220 of the meeting's 300 attendees and about 80 percent of the event's revenue were expected to come from the utility industry.

These and other details were cited by ethics commission advocate Linzie Bogan in recommending that the ethics commission find probable cause to believe that by merely attending the meeting, PSC commissioners Braulio Baez, Rudy Bradley, Terry Deason and Lila Jaber violated state statutes prohibiting them from accepting gifts from utility companies.

Mike Twomey, a Tallahassee attorney who heads the consumer advocacy group Florida Utility Watch, said he was alarmed by the "huge percentage of the total budget" that was paid for by utility companies.

"I was surprised at the percentages," he said. "These amounts appear to be substantially higher than what was previously reported."

The matter was first brought to the attention of the ethics commission when retired school teacher Lloyd Brumfield of Stuart filed a complaint in December. Following the ethics commission's ruling, the case was forwarded to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, where an administrative law judge may call for a public hearing before issuing a final recommendation to the ethics commission.

In filings with the ethics commission, Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, who is representing the four PSC commissioners, said some of them did not consume refreshments during the events cited. He also said the cost of all events at the Miami meeting were covered by registration fees and ticket costs, with extra sponsorship money for individual events during the meeting forwarded to the utility regulators association.

"There was no direct or indirect gift or subsidy provided by any regulated industry to any member of the PSC in connection with the . . . conference," Herron said.

But Bogan, an assistant state attorney general, countered that "the issue of whether respondents ate or drank anything at the various events sponsored by regulated industry is a secondary consideration" when considering the behind-the-scenes industry lobbying efforts that the state statutes had sought to curtail.

According to a filing submitted by Herron, Southern Co., the parent of Gulf Power Co. of Pensacola, paid $11,009.71 to sponsor a reception with a calypso band and $8,593.20 to sponsor two continental breakfasts; BellSouth Corp. paid $1,666.66 to sponsor two coffee breaks; Florida Power & Light of Juno Beach and Progress Energy Florida of St. Petersburg paid about $3,800 each to co-sponsor a luncheon; and AT&T paid $5,741.82 to sponsor a buffet breakfast.

In addition, the Florida Telecommunications Industry Association sponsored a golf tournament during the meeting.

Bogan noted that the 220 expected industry attendees paid a registration fee of $425 each, while regulators and their staff were charged just $225 each. As a result, the meeting was expected to generate $93,500 in revenue from industry participants and only $18,000 from regulators. The 2002 Miami meeting was "an event that was heavily financed and subsidized by regulated industry," Bogan said.

Times researcher Aakash Patel contributed to this report. Louis Hau can be reached at (813) 226-3404 or