A utility's $1.3 billion rate-increase plan produced more sparks Monday, with Public Service Commissioner Katrina McMurrian suffering a one-two political punch: A citizen's demand that she recuse herself after dining with a Florida Power & Light executive - and a veiled threat from Gov. Charlie Crist, who suggested she and the PSC's chairman wouldn't be reappointed if they vote for the rate hike.
A commissioner since 2006, McMurrian said she has never been the subject of such pressure and insists she did nothing wrong by dining with FPL treasurer Paul I. Cutler in New York before a March 10 utility conference.
Sarasota resident Richard Unger said Monday that the dinner - though not unethical or illegal - was grounds for a disqualification from hearing the rate case, which FPL began nearly four months before she broke bread with Cutler.
The governor went a step further.
First, he said McMurrian's attendance at the cocktail-and-dinner reception was "probably not appropriate."
Then, when asked whether the PSC should postpone rate hearings, Crist said: "I don't know why we should postpone it. Let's see what the commissioners want to do, and then I can have a better handle on who to appoint or reappoint. ... It would be nice to reject the rate increase."
Asked to clarify, Crist said: "I'm trying to appoint members that will be sympathetic to the people and the economic challenge that they're facing. And so that's a factor, of course."
Progress Energy is also seeking PSC approval for a rate increase of about 30 percent, or $500 million per year. That hearing is to start this month.
McMurrian and Chairman Matthew Carter, both appointed by Crist's predecessor and fellow Republican Jeb Bush, are up for reappointment to their $130,000 yearly jobs. Crist can pick their names, or four others from a list forwarded to him by a nominating council. Five members sit on the PSC, which regulates utilities and approves rate increases.
Crist's stance and Unger's motion are the latest knocks against the PSC, where staffers have been fired, pressured to quit, investigated, embarrassed and questioned over their ties and talks with utilities.
In a separate rate case, advocates and consumer groups Monday announced they would appeal to the state Supreme Court a $137 million rate increase for Tampa Electric Co. that the PSC approved in April.
The groups claim the PSC erred when it approved a rate increase above and beyond what TECO had sought. The lawsuit was filed by the Office of Public Counsel, which represents utility customers, Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Florida Industrial Power Users' Group and the Florida Retail Federation.
PSC Chairman Carter said he didn't feel that the governor was threatening him or McMurrian. But he said he could not predetermine the case before the rate hearings end.
When asked if dinners with utility executives were appropriate during rate cases, Carter gave a one-word response: "No."
McMurrian said that while she "obviously" refutes allegations against her, she'll respond in writing to Unger's motion. If she doesn't recuse herself, Unger can appeal to the state Supreme Court, delaying the rate hearing.
Earlier this month, McMurrian told the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald that she did not discuss any pending business with FPL's Cutler at Bobby Van's Grill, where she paid $91.40 for her meal.
Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.