Tuesday, December 1, 2015

hot, Hot, HOT! AZ Attorney General files to remove chair of Corporation Commission

Here is the on-the-scene report carried by the Tucson Weekly.

Evan Wyloge of Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting brings us this brief from Attorney General Mark Brnovich's press conference [yesterday] morning:

Susan Bitter Smith, the chairwoman of the Arizona Corporation Commission broke the state’s conflict of interest laws by continuing to work as a lobbyist for companies the commission regulates, an Attorney General’s investigation has found.

The state’s top law enforcement office filed today a special action with the Arizona Supreme Court to have Bitter Smith removed from office.

Arizona law specifically addresses the Corporation Commission, barring them from working for, or having a financial interest in the companies the commission regulates.

"We believe she is ineligible to hold this office," Attorney General Mark Brnovich said at a press conference Monday.

The motion asks for immediate action, but the Supreme Court could send it to superior court for review.

Read related stories with more background and quotes from both AG Brnovich and ACC Chair Bitter Smith by ABC15 and KJZZ.

Here's a short version of the reasons for the AG's action from a report by Howard Fischer at the Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required).

Brnovich’s petition relies on three issues: Bitter Smith has an "official relation" with Cox Communications since she’s a registered lobbyist for the company; she has "official relations" with four regulated entities through the cable industry trade group; and, she is "pecuniarily interested" in the companies due to her $150,000 annual salary.

On its own, each of these reasons would be enough to remove her from office, the AG argued.

KJZZ notes the possibly good news:

If the high court agrees, Gov. Doug Ducey would appoint a replacement to serve out the balance of her term which ends at the end of 2016.

Ducey might have the chance to clean up the ACC and restore public faith in it. He just has to step up and act on behalf of the people and not the corporations the ACC is supposed to regulate.

Not everyone sees the petition for removal as a good thing. From Fischer's report:

... consultant Barrett Marson, who briefly spoke for the commission, said the solar industry has shot itself in the foot ...

When APS recently asked for an increase in the solar fee, Bitter Smith joined Commissioner Bob Burns in voting to consider it as part of a rate case, while the other three commissioners disagreed. Burns and Bitter Smith also asked utilities and unregulated entities like solar companies to "voluntarily refrain" from spending on commission elections.

"Targeting a commissioner who actually supports you and having her face possible removal only to be replaced probably by someone who isn’t as welcoming of the solar industry was probably a mistake," Marson said.

But that view ducks the question of Bitter Smith's conflict of interest. It really does not matter what side she takes on what issue. She is still conflicted by her employment as a lobbyist.

Now the AG should go after the "other three." Those are the guys who are the principal players in STUMPgate. The AG needs to get ACC Commissioner Bob Stump's text messages out in the open. Here's a recap of the other investigations now underway (from the AZ Daily Sun).

The Attorney General's office also is looking into several other issues at the commission.

One relates to its review of texts between Commissioner Bob Stump and others, including candidates for office in 2014, an executive with Arizona Public Service and the head of a "dark money'' group which spent money to influence the outcome of that race. That goes to questions of whether there was illegal coordination of campaign spending.

There also is an inquiry into allegations that former Commissioner Gary Pierce had met secretly APS executives while the utility was in the middle of a rate case before the agency. These were laid out in a letter from a whistleblower, later identified as a former commission staffer, to Brnovich and others.

The same complaint said Pierce used his office to coerce commission staffers to expedite the formation of a corporation that Capitol Media Services reported later spent $186,000 in the 2012 election on mailers to drum up support for Stump's re-election and to help elect fellow Republicans Bitter Smith and Bob Burns.

"I guess it's the 'full employment act' for our office,'' Brnovich quipped.

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