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ETHICS GROUP CONSIDERS TEXT MESSAGE

A Public Service commissioner is accused to taking a text from a utility official during a rate hearing.

Two days after the Public Service Commission banned some BlackBerry messaging in its hearing room, the Florida Commission on Ethics will decide whether e-mails sent by BlackBerry may have snagged Commissioner Lisa Edgar in a potential violation of state law.

The commission will meet in a closed-door session today to decide if there is probable cause to a citizen's complaint that accuses Edgar of using her staff aide to receive a message from a Florida Power & Light official during a November hearing to set charges for FPL customers.

The PSC regulates electric companies. State law prohibits its five commissioners from discussing any pending issues with any utility executive, except in an open meeting. Failure to follow the "ex parte" law can result in a $5,000 fine or removal from office.

The ethics complaint is one in a series of allegations about improper relationships with utility officials that have dogged the PSC in recent weeks. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been investigating the agency for potential ethics violations; Senate leaders have called for reforming the agency; the PSC's lobbyist resigned under fire, and three agency staffers were put on paid administrative leave or reassigned for giving their private messaging codes to FPL.

Tensions are so high that PSC spokeswoman Cynthia Muir got into a physical confrontation with a TV news crew from Tallahassee-based Capitol News Service Thursday when a reporter attempted to ask commission Chairman Matthew Carter a question.

The ethics complaint against Edgar was filed in April by Stephen Stewart, a Tallahassee businessman who has been a consultant on utility regulation cases. He accuses Edgar of violating the "ex parte" law, based on an e-mail trail between Edgar and her aide, Roberta Bass, during a Nov. 6, 2008, hearing.

Edgar has denied any wrongdoing. Bass has not responded to requests for comment.

Bass appeared to facilitate communications between Edgar and FPL executives earlier that year when she sent an e-mail to FPL attorney Natalie Smith containing no words, only the private messaging code, or PIN, of Edgar's BlackBerry.

Documents obtained by the Times/Herald show that Bass sent that e-mail in February 2008, and in October she gave her own BlackBerry PIN to the same attorney. By using the PIN system for messages, users can bypass the state e-mail system and avoid creating a traceable paper trail.

After the Times/Herald disclosed the use of the PINs by Bass and other PSC staffers, Carter ordered that all instant messaging functions of the agency's state-issued BlackBerrys be disabled.

Citizens for Sunshine, a Sarasota-based government watchdog group, challenged that decision Thursday, warning that attempts to reprogram the devices to disable the messaging function or allowing the staff to continue to use the devices could permanently delete the electronic records.

PSC general counsel Booter Imhof said Thursday that he has been assured by the PSC technology staff that disabling the instant messaging functions on the devices will not interfere with the recovery of those messages.

Staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

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