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SLEAZE, NOT SUNSHINE, AT PSC

The Florida Public Service Commission should be devoting its full attention this week to hearings on rate increases to pay for new nuclear plants proposed by the state's two largest electric utilities, Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy. Instead, the PSC is bogged down in a morass of unethical behavior by staff members and now a call by one commissioner for a grand jury investigation into what she characterizes as threats from legislators to side with the utilities or else. The state attorney and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement already have set up shop at the PSC, and it might take a grand jury to sort out this mess and restore public confidence.

It turns out that a PSC lobbyist's bone-headed decision to stop by a Kentucky Derby party hosted by an FP&L executive in May is not the only evidence that the PSC is too cozy with the utilities it regulates. The Times/Herald capital bureau reported that PSC aides gave an FP&L attorney the personal identification numbers, or PINs, of state-provided BlackBerry phones for PSC staff members and Commissioner Lisa Edgar. This form of messagingis the ultimate back channel,allowingutility staffers to talk to commissioners or PSC staffers outside public view and without leaving a paper trail.

Indeed, the PSC could not turn up any details about such messages in response to a public records request. This is not government-in-the-sunshine; this is the high-tech version of a smoke-filled back room.

Commissioner Nancy Argenziano did the right thing Sunday by accepting the resignation of her top aide after he acknowledged giving his BlackBerry PIN to an FP&L executive. The PSC lobbyist who attended the Derby party is leaving, and two more PSC members' aides are now on administrative leave for the BlackBerry debacle. Regardless of the technicalities of the PSC rules regarding staff communications with utility officials, the staffers ought to know better than to facilitate such secret messaging in violation of at least the spirit of public records laws.

On top of it all are Argenziano's serious allegations of interference by legislators in ratemaking decisions. That ought to get a prosecutor's attention.

All of this sleaze could be written off as business as usual in Tallahassee if the stakes were not so high. This week, it's hearings on the surcharges for the proposed nuclear power plants, which are enormously expensive. Then there are decisions to be made on general rate increases of 30 percent or more sought by Progress Energy and FP&L - the latter of which has the audacity to seek $31 million for a new corporate jet in the midst of an economic recession and to defy orders to release salaries of top executives. No wonder FP&L wanted those PSC BlackBerry codes to communicate privately.

With billions of dollars in utility rate increases hanging in the balance, the PSC's credibility is in shreds. First, any remaining PSC staffers who shared the BlackBerry codes with FP&L should be fired. Second, the state attorney and FDLE should continue their investigations and look into Argenziano's allegations of legislative interference. If it takes a grand jury, State Attorney Willie Meggs has demonstrated he is more than willing to convene one (See former House Speaker Ray Sansom). Finally, Gov. Charlie Crist should put the appointment process for two PSC seats on hold. Chairman Matthew Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian are finalists, but they should not be reappointed until this ethical cloud over the commission is cleared up.

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