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PSC Chair on Conflict Charges: ‘My Record Speaks for Itself’

The commission he chairs may be embattled in a swirl of conflict-of-interest allegations, but Florida Public Service Commission Chairman Matthew Carter said Thursday that his record demonstrates “independence and freedom from external bias.”

A top PSC staffer recently admitted to mingling with employees of the state's largest publicly-regulated utility and the state's law enforcement agency said this week that it was reviewing a conflict-of-interest complaint made against the panel, but Carter said his three-and-a-half year tenure on the commission was unassailable.

“Assertions have been made that the Florida Public Service Commission is too ‘cozy’ with regulated utilities, FPL in particular,” Carter, who was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a statement. “To the extent that these criticisms are directed toward me, I take great offense because they are false.”

PSC Director of Strategic Analysis and Governmental Affairs Ryder Rudd was removed from all dockets involving Florida Power & Light, which serves South Florida and most of the Atlantic Coast, because he told commissioners before the opening of an FPL rate increase hearing that he and his wife attended a private function at the South Florida home of an FPL executive.

The function, a May 2 Kentucky Derby party at FPL vice president Ed Tancer's Palm Beach Gardens home, was two months after FPL submitted its request for a $1.3 billion rate increase. The news caused Carter to delay the start of the ongoing FPL hearings and call for an internal review, because he said at the time "due process was on the line."

The internal review found Rudd exercised "poor judgment" but didn't break any rules, but the news was obscured because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed the same day that the department was acting on a complaint that the regulators are too close to companies they oversee.

Additionally, Tallahassee businessman Steven Stewart filed an ethics complaint in May against PSC Commissioner Lisa Edgar, alleging Edgar, who was reappointed to the panel this year, violated state ethics laws by sending messages to an FPL executive through her aide during a hearing. Stewart also wrote to Attorney General Bill McCollum in July calling for PSC Commissioner Katrina McMurrian to be recused from the major rate increase cases this fall because of alleged improper interactions with utilities.

Stewart compiled his conflict-of-interest claims on a Website – www.fpscreports.com – though the site does not mention the most recent controversies.

Neither FDLE nor the PSC would confirm if the law enforcement agency's review was linked to the Rudd allegations or Stewart’s complaint, but Carter said Thursday that the charges were from “special interests” and identified several votes he’s made against FPL.

“An examination of the record, not some special interest’s characterizations, demonstrates my independence and freedom from external bias,” Carter said. “In nearly every high-profile issue that FPL has brought before this Commission, I have voted to deny or severely limit the company’s request.”

Carter recalled voting against a 2006 FPL request for securitized financing of its storm costs and a 2007 no vote on a coal plant in Glades County. He also mentioned voting in 2008 to end FPL’s Sunshine Energy Program, and voting to require the company to pay back $6 million in fuel costs during the Turkey Point nuclear outage caused by an FPL employee.

Carter also touted 2009 votes in favor of a proposed renewable energy standard opposed as too expensive by FPL and to require the company to release salary information for its highest-earning employees, a recent decision.

The conflict-of-interest maelstrom emerged as the PSC was beginning to embark on a meaty fall agenda, which includes not only the FPL rate increase, but also a $500 million rate request from Progress Energy, which provides power to about 1.6 million homes in 35 Big Bend, central Florida and Tampa Bay area counties. The commission will also consider a $1.6 billion proposed FPL underground natural gas pipeline.

In addition to proclaiming his independence from utility influence, Carter also pledged to not let the conflict-of-interest charges deter the commission from deciding those cases.

“Despite the disruptive controversies that have enveloped the agency recently, this commission will forge ahead, conducting its business fairly, with due process, and in the public interest, and will not be deterred or influenced by political intimidation,” he said.

As the conflict-of-interest allegations have mounted during its rate increase hearings, FPL has maintained its innocence, and company spokesman Mayco Villafana told the News Service Thursday that the company hopes the accusations won’t sway the commission against its proposal.

“We would hope and expect that our request will be judged, free from political influence, on its merits and its benefits for our customers; that is the purpose of the commission,” Villafana said in an E-mail.

The Miami Herald-St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee bureau reported Thursday afternoon that Gov. Charlie Crist said at a Miami event that he agreed with the PSC’s Ryder Rudd internal review and supported the FDLE inquiry. Crist will receive candidates later this year for Carter and McMurrian’s seats on the PSC from the panel’s nominating council, which interviewed finalists this week in Orlando.

The PSC's hearing about the proposed FPL case is expected to continue through this week. Final rulings are expected in the case in November and the new rates would take effect in January 2010. Progress Energy’s hearings are set for later this month.

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