Regulator apologizes for `cloud’ over Public Service Commission
A Florida utility regulator apologized for some of her decisions and proposed new rules for conduct as the Public Service Commission sought to restore public trust.
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BY MARC CAPUTO
HERALD/TIMES TALLAHASSEE BUREAU
In an emotional appeal, a utility regulator apologized Tuesday for casting a “cloud” over the Public Service Commission, but insisted she broke no rules in dining with an executive of Florida Power & Light as it sought a $1.3 billion rate increase.
Commissioner Katrina McMurrian sounded choked up after Commissioner Nathan Skop suggested she had engaged in “completely unacceptable” behavior by having a meal with FPL Treasurer Paul I. Cutler in New York before a March 10 utility conference.
The tense exchange came as the PSC proposed new rules to restore public trust in an agency that has been rocked by investigations and allegations of too-cozy ties and private discussions with the powerful utilities it regulates. FPL and Progress Energy are asking for rate increases of about 30 percent.
“I do apologize to the extent that the commission has had a cloud over it with respect to some of the decisions I have made,” said McMurrian, who called for new rules governing their conduct with utilities last week.
“I’m trying to propose something going forward to give us more guidance about the kinds of things we attend,” she said. “And that may lead us to never attend these things again.”
The ripple effect of the PSC’s troubles spread beyond the agency Tuesday, with Attorney General Bill McCollum announcing that his agency would retain all of his employees’ BlackBerry text messages — a hard-to-track public record that came under scrutiny for its use at the commission.
BAN ON TRAVEL, GIFTS
Among the PSC proposals to win public trust: Limit or ban travel to conferences sponsored by utilities, ban all gifts, prohibit or disclose all private discussions with utilities or make the PSC fall under the judicial branch of government.
The commission could vote on the new rules at an Oct. 5 meeting.
McMurrian said Tuesday she would “like to be able to talk more freely” about the dinner she shared in New York with Cutler and others but said she couldn’t because a citizen had filed an official motion Monday demanding that she recuse herself from deciding FPL’s rate case. Previously, McMurrian described the discussions with the FPL executive as “chit chat” that had nothing to do with any rate hearings.
The recusal motion, filed by consumer advocate Steve Stewart and citizen Richard Unger, does not accuse McMurrian of breaking the rules or the law. It just questions her impartiality. Stewart said McMurrian was displaying a type of “Stockholm syndrome” in which she started to identify too closely with the people she regulates.
McMurrian, a commissioner since 2006 and a PSC employee before that, said she had legitimate reasons to attend the Standard & Poor’s utility conference in New York that featured other regulators and utility chiefs as speakers.
“I try to educate myself on the issues,” she said. “I’m not apologizing for having gone.”
McMurrian and Chairman Matthew Carter are up for reappointment this year, and Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday they might not keep their jobs if they approve the FPL rate increase. Crist also said that he thought McMurrian’s dinner was not appropriate, but added Tuesday that it should not disqualify her. McMurrian said she will soon respond in writing to the recusal motion. If she refuses to recuse herself, the complainant can appeal to the Florida Supreme Court and potentially delay the rate case.
he commission is considered a quasi-judicial body, but its members are not traditional judges and commissioners answer to the Legislature and the governor. The governor appoints them to four-year terms.
Commissioner Nancy Argenziano, a former state senator, said the Legislature, too, needs reform. She pointed out that utilities are among the top contributors to political parties, campaigns and candidates each year, and that some legislators she would not name have “sold their soul” for big checks.
“I have seen what influence those large contributions have,” Argenziano said.
She, too, has come under fire during the continuing turmoil at the PSC. Critics have noted she owns out-of-state property with a lobbyist who represents a municipal electric company that is not regulated by the commission. Sometimes though it intervenes in rate cases heard by the PSC.
On Tuesday, Skop recommended the commission propose that citizens change the state Constitution to place the PSC under the judicial branch of government — an idea endorsed by a majority of commissioners.
Skop read from a 1992 grand jury report about the PSC that said “a judge cannot meet with one party alone to discuss an issue of importance if the judge is the final arbitrator of that issue. Judges are required to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
Never mentioning McMurrian by name, Skop talked about the “transgressions” of the past and said it was “inappropriate” for commissioners to serve on boards or speak at conferences on the recommendation of utilities. McMurrian had been recommended by FPL to sit on an energy grid advisory board, funded by utilities.
“The commission is going through some challenging times,” Skop said. “We are under a lot of controversy. And rightfully so.”
McMurrian, her voice breaking, said she wasn’t sure if the comments “were aimed at me or not. . . . But give me the benefit of the doubt.”
Skop said he did not mean to get personal. Argenziano recommended the commission focus on reform.
“Let’s not get too warm and fuzzy,” she said, “because the people out there think we suck.”
Times/Herald Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com