Only in Arkansas -- UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Only in Arkansas -- UPDATE

Posted By on Tue, Aug 7, 2007 at 10:25 AM

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Read this letter distributed today and weep for ethics in Arkansas:

Counsel,

The purpose of this email is to inform you that I have recently accepted an offer of employment from the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC).  My resignation from the Arkansas Public Service Commission and assumption of my duties at AECC will be effective sometime during the fall of this year.  The exact date, yet to be determined, will be announced later.

As you may know, AECC has publicly disclosed that it is involved in negotiations with SWEPCO that could lead to a 70 MW equity ownership by AECC in the coal plant proposed by SWEPCO in Docket No. 06-154-U.  I have not been involved in those negotiations nor have I been involved in any other work on behalf of AECC.  Nor will I perform any work for AECC until my resignation from the Commission is finalized.

In the interest of full disclosure and to avoid any appearance of impropriety I am prepared to recuse from this Docket.  However, absent an objection from any party I am also prepared to continue to serve as a Commissioner in this Docket through the issuance of the final order.  My future employment with AECC will not affect my ability to decide this matter in a fair, objective and impartial manner.

 If any party has an objection to my continuing to serve as a Commissioner in this Docket please so indicate by “Reply to All” email no later than 2:00 p.m. this afternoon.  If there is an objection by any party I will immediately recuse from this Docket.  Upon my recusal the Governor will be asked to appoint a Special Commissioner for this Docket pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. §23-2-102.

Yours truly,

Sandra Hochstetter

Commissioner

This is not a joke. A member and former chairman of the PSC is going to work for a company with a stake in a power plant now under consideration by the PSC. AND SHE PROPOSES TO CONTINUE TO HEAR THE CASE. In that she was hired out of the gas company, recommended highly to Gov. Mike Huckabee as the right sort of utility regulator, it's not particularly surprising that she'd revolve out the door to cash in. It's the Arkansas way. But to brazenly propose to keep working on a case for her new employer? Please.

Reply all. RESIGN. NOW.

But, in the meanwhile, questions: When did the commissioner start negotiating with her new employer? Was it when she participated in the decision certifying the need for electricty from the plant? Was it when she put the kibosh on a PSC site visit to this poison-belching coal-fired plant that will despoil pristone wetlands? Was it when the PSC was happily making other accommodations for a plant other states have shunned?

Was she negotiating with AECC when hearing the case that put the wood to Entergy, an AECC competitor?

Do her office emails reflect private business negotiation?

What will her role be at AECC? Will she practice before the PSC, without any interval of service between one and the other?

What's Gov. Mike Beebe think about all this? And, who'll he appoint to serve out Hochstetter's term, ending in 2011. Maybe he can call his old pal Tom Kennedy over at Entergy for some ideas.

Beebe also must appoint shortly an interim commissioner to hear the SWEPCO environmental impact portion of the coal plant case. That should come today or tomorrow.

UPDATE: Hochstetter has recused from the case, in response to a request from some of the parties in the case. She tells me that asked parties about the recusal rather than simply do it, because she had a duty to perform her job if she thought she could do so impartially or unlesss others objected. They have objected, so she recused, she said.

She couldn't remember precisely when the job-offer discussions began relative to activity in the case, but said the offer was "recent." She said it was important to note in the context that AECC was a nonprofit and she viewed her job change as a continuation of working "in the public interest."

Said Hochstetter:

“I’ve done a lot to keep costs from going up in state,  advocating against things that raise our rates. I’ve worked my heart out doing those things. … And I will continue to do that.” She said she’d be working in strategic planning and policy planning. Would she appear before the PSC? “I will comply with all laws and ethical requirements. I am an attorney that enjoys this career field. I take the public interest seriously. I have no intention of doing anything not in that interest.”   She declined to discuss her feelings on coal-fired power plants.

She said she did not resign immediately because she wanted to complete her current work assignments, none of which, she said, have any relationship to her employer. At least it doesn't now that she's recused from the case in which her future employer will have an interest.
By law, she can't appear before the PSC for a year.

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