Miami Herald: Public Service Commission aide fired over codes

Sep 8, 2009

This article was published by the Miami Herald on Sept. 8, 2009

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Public Service Commissioner Nancy Argenziano, who has criticized her agency for being too close to the utilities it regulates, fired her top aide Sunday after he admitted to giving the private messaging code for his BlackBerry to a Florida Power & Light executive.

Larry Harris, 40, who has been at the PSC since 2001, volunteered to resign and seek a job elsewhere in the PSC after Argenziano read a Miami Herald story online late Saturday revealing that at least three PSC aides had given the messaging codes to an FPL executive. Harris worked as a senior attorney at the PSC before joining Argenziano’s staff in 2007. He said he has no guarantee that he will find a new PSC job.

The Herald/Times has reported that the messaging codes — called Personal Identification Numbers, or PINS — had been given to FPL attorney Natalie Smith, potentially allowing the utility to communicate directly with commissioners outside public view and without leaving a paper trail.

Documents obtained by the Herald/Times also showed that at least one staff aide, Roberta Bass, who works with Commissioner Lisa Edgar, gave FPL the message code to Edgar’s BlackBerry. The PSC is currently being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for possible ethics violations.

Harris said he told Argenziano that Smith had contacted the top advisors to all five PSC commissioners in 2008 to ask for their PINS. He gave it to the FPL attorney, he said, because he believed the PIN “was a public record, just as with any other state-issued device.”

He said he also told Smith that Argenziano had a strict policy forbidding him from communicating in any fashion with utility representatives. “I told Natalie, Commissioner Argenziano’s position was very clear — I was not to talk to anyone who is regulated,” Harris told the Herald/Times.

State law prohibits PSC commissioners from discussing a pending rate case with utility officials but it specifically excludes PSC staff from the ban. PSC officials told the Herald/Times that it does not save PIN messages.

Miami media law expert Tom Julin said that the PSC’s failure to keep a record of the PIN messages sent via staff BlackBerrys could be a violation of the state’s public records law.

Harris said Smith was the only utility representative who asked for his PIN number and he said he doesn’t recall ever receiving a message from her.

Argenziano said she was disappointed in Harris but thought he understood the guidelines. “He’s not a bad person,” she said. “But why would you let a utility person do that?”

Another PSC commissioner, Nathan Skop, told the Herald/Times Sunday that he had a standing policy in his office not to give out PIN numbers to regulated utilities. “To the best of my knowledge, neither my aide nor I have every given it out to a regulated entity,” he said.

Documents given to the Herald/Times showed that Commission Chairman Matthew Carter’s aide, William Garner, had given out Garner’s PIN and Edgar’s aide had given out the aide’s PIN as well. Carter told the Herald/Times that he was not aware that his aide’s PIN had been shared with FPL. Edgar said she was not aware of receiving any PIN messages from Smith. Commissioner Katrina McMurrian, nor her aide, Lorena Holley, could be reached for comment.