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FDLE Reviewing PSC-Utility Realtionships

A charge often levied by Florida Public Service Commission critics who believe the panel rules too often in favor of the state’s public utilities – that regulators are too close to companies they oversee – is now being looked into by the state’s law enforcement agency.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Heather Smith confirmed Wednesday morning that the department was acting on a complaint it had received about the PSC, though Smith cautioned it was just a review.

“Investigation is not how we would characterize it at this time,” Smith told the News Service of Florida. “We received a complaint that does not appear to rise to the level of criminal activity and started reviewing it a couple weeks ago.”

Word of the review surfaced as the PSC was in the midst of hearings about the proposed $1.3 billion rate increase for Florida Power & Light, the state's largest publicly-regulated utility. The commission convened Wednesday morning to continue taking testimony, and Smith said the FDLE review would not affect the panel’s operation.

PSC spokeswoman Cindy Muir said the commission only became aware of the FDLE review when media reports about it surfaced. Muir said the panel was cooperating with the law enforcement agency, but she didn’t have many details about the complaint or FDLE’s interview plans.

“I have no first hand knowledge of it; it’s confidential,” she said.

The first day of the FPL hearing was halted for hours when details of a possible conflict-of-interest for one of its staffers emerged. Commissioner Nathan Skop told the panel that PSC Director of Strategic Analysis and Governmental Affairs Ryder Rudd needed to be removed from all dockets involving FPL because Skop said Rudd admitted to him that he and his wife attended a private function at the South Florida home of an FPL executive.

The function, reported to be a Kentucky Derby party at FPL vice president Ed Tancer’s Palm Beach Gardens home, occurred in May, two months after FPL submitted its rate increase request. After a lengthy recess, commissioners removed Rudd from all FPL related issues and said it would conduct an internal inquiry into the matter.

Commissioner Nancy Argenziano said at the time she would like to see a broader investigation of possible conflicts-of-interest, including commissioners.

However, neither FDLE nor the PSC would confirm if the law enforcement agency’s review was linked to the Rudd allegations, though FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana told the News Service last week that the company had done no wrong.

“We defer to the commission regarding its employees and their conduct," Villafana said in an E-mailed statement. "Under no circumstances does Florida Power & Light Company attempt to inappropriately influence anyone."

The PSC's hearing about the proposed FPL case is expected to continue through Friday, though chairman Matthew Carter has said this week that testimony could go until Saturday if necessary. Final rulings are expected in the case in November and the new rates would take effect in January 2010.

The PSC is also set to consider a similar request from Progress Energy Florida later this month.

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