Miami Herald: Florida Public Service Commission probed by FDLE over conflicts amid FPL rate request
Sep 2, 2009
This story was published in the Miami Herald on September 2.
The state’s top law enforcement agency is investigating the Public Service Commission on grounds that commissioners and staff members may have had improper relationships with the utilities they regulate.
Two of the five PSC commissioners and its executive director said Tuesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has launched an investigation based on a complaint, and is preparing to interview all five commissioners and some among their staff.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs is assisting in the investigation, sources said. “I’ve been advised by our executive director that FDLE will be conducting interviews,” Commissioner Nathan Skop said. He would not comment or speculate on the nature of the investigation.
Commissioner Nancy Argenziano said she was told by PSC Executive Director Mary Andrews Bane that the FDLE “was coming to conduct interviews, and [that] it was supposed to occur” Tuesday.
Argenziano said the interviews were delayed when two staff members, William Garner and Roberta Bass, sought to hire attorneys before the interviews. Garner, chief advisor to PSC Chairman Matthew Carter, and Bass, chief advisor to Commissioner Lisa Edgar, could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening. “It was my understanding that FDLE would be conducting interviews of everybody,” Argenziano said.
Commissioners Edgar, Carter and Katrina McMurrian could not be reached for comment.
An FDLE spokeswoman said the agency has just started its investigation. “At this time, it doesn’t appear to rise to the level of a criminal issue. We’re still seeking information to make a final determination on the next steps to take,” said FDLE spokeswoman Heather Smith.
Asked if the investigation was routine, Smith said the agency always takes a thorough look at “anything and everything” associated with a complaint.
The FDLE investigation comes as the PSC, which regulates utilities and the rates they charge consumers, is conducting hearings on a request by Florida Power & Light to raise its base rates 30 percent beginning next year in what would be the largest such increase in 20 years.
While the complaint that triggered the FDLE investigation is not public record, one source believes it is a broad probe into PSC relationships with utilities. Another source familiar with the investigation indicated it was connected to PSC lobbyist Ryder Rudd.
On Aug. 24, the first day of the FPL rate hearing, commissioners postponed deliberations and ordered an internal investigation into whether Rudd, the staff’s chief lobbyist, had violated PSC ethics rules when he attended a Kentucky Derby Party at the Palm Beach Gardens home of an FPL executive, Ed Tancer.
Rudd denied wrongdoing, but Skop said the meeting was inappropriate. Rudd was removed from FPL business pending an internal inquiry.
PSC rules forbid staffers and commissioners from discussing certain types of commission business out of the public eye with those who appear before the regulatory panel. Under state law, a commissioner who engages in such discussions — called “ex parte communications” — and who fails to report them could face a $5,000 fine and even removal.
FPL said through a spokesperson that the utility was unaware of any investigation. “We defer to the commission regarding its employees and their conduct. Under no circumstances does Florida Power & Light attempt to inappropriately influence anyone,” the utility said in a written statement.
An FPL critic, state Sen. Mike Fasano, said the inquiry troubled him. “Anytime FDLE is investigating a state agency, it concerns me,” Fasano said. “A lot of people are hiring lawyers. That’s making the lawyers of Tallahassee happy.”
Miami Herald staff writer Larry Lebowitz contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.