On Friday, Jan. 27, the five members of the Florida Public Service Commission received a mysterious e-mail. It urged a ruling in a pending issue in favor of BellSouth, the state's largest local telephone company.
The e-mail was sent from a free Yahoo account. It argued that the PSC should overturn its own staff's recommendation. An attachment to the message contained detailed technical material.
PSC members are not allowed to receive such information outside of public proceedings. Some past members (but none current) have been criticized for seeming to skirt that law.
The PSC appears to have moved swiftly and correctly. The staff confirmed that no member of the commission had read the e-mail, and notified all parties.
PSC lawyers also asked BellSouth if it knew anything.
BellSouth replied, more or less: You're getting them, too?
Since November, BellSouth had been getting e-mails from a second Yahoo address, suggesting arguments for the company's use.
BellSouth's internal messages show company officials were wary, then worried. They told the e-mailer they could not talk to her.
"Pardon me," a BellSouth representative wrote, "but who are you?"
"A Florida citizen," came the reply, "full of questions." After more messages, BellSouth referred it to company security.
Yahoo e-mail addresses are more or less anonymous. But the Jan. 27 e-mail contained a clue: the attached document.
It had been written on a PSC staff computer.
Doris Moss, 51, who held the position of engineer specialist II on the PSC staff, confirmed to investigators that she sent the Jan. 27 e-mail to the commissioners. Later she resigned.
I spoke with Moss on Wednesday. "I admitted I was wrong for sending it to the commission," she told me. She said she did it out of frustration. She thought the staff recommendation against BellSouth on one issue (out of 26 in the case) was clearly wrong.
However, she said she did not send the earlier e-mails to BellSouth, even though they were sent on a Yahoo account that she created. Anybody had access to that account and to her passwords on her office computer, she said. She used that address only to send Bible verses to friends.
Moss had been employed by the PSC for only two years. Before that, she worked for 24 years for the same company:
There is no evidence BellSouth knew what its former employee was doing as a PSC staffer. "We are relieved her actions didn't get to the commission," company spokeswoman Marta Casas-Celaya said Wednesday. "We believe the PSC acted appropriately."
But an adviser to BellSouth's opponents in the case, Joe Gillan, said the incident raises questions, since the PSC eventually ruled BellSouth's way in every other issue in the case.
The case involved how much BellSouth and other local phone companies must let would-be rivals use their equipment.
"It's incredibly troubling that they had a woman this biased on the staff, and there was no management detection or oversight until she goes to the extreme of this Nancy Drew, fake-ID thing," Gillan said. Given the overall result of the case, her role is troubling, and the opponents may ask the matter to be reopened, he said.
One of the opposing companies this week asked the PSC to investigate several questions, including whether Moss was receiving BellSouth pension benefits or other compensation at the same time she was working as a PSC staffer.
I asked PSC spokesman Kevin Bloom about this. He said in an e-mail the PSC is evaluating the request, and added an interesting coda: "It is likely we will be looking at some other issues not raised by any of the parties (so far)."
I compliment the PSC and BellSouth for their ethical handling of the e-mails, but think the opponents raise valid questions.