Consumers' new voice before PSC

October 10, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

In 1988, Michael J. Travieso suffered a shock when his older brother, Jack, was found dead of a heart attack at the age of 58 in his office at NBC in Washington.

The death of his brother, who was a field producer at NBC News, did more than bring grief into Mr. Travieso's life; it changed it.

"I began to think about what I was going to be doing when I was 58 or 50," he said. "Did I want to spend the rest of my life in the kind of pressure situation that I was in? Or did I want to make some other contribution?"

That desire eventually prompted him to quit his job at the Baltimore law firm of Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, where he was a partner, and hire on at half the pay at the Maryland Attorney General's Office.

Now, as people's counsel, the 50-year-old self-described Roosevelt-Kennedy Democrat will get the chance to affect the pocketbook of every Marylander.

In his new job, he is the person who does legal battle on behalf of consumers with gas, electric, telephone and even taxicab companies before the Public Service Commission. In other words, he is the consumers' voice before the PSC.

"He's very analytical and very good at weighing the pros and cons of cases," said Richard O. Berndt, managing partner of Mr. Travieso's former law firm and and the man who recommended Mr. Travieso to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Mr. Travieso was particularly outstanding in the area of hospital and nursing home regulations, where institutions vie with each other in marathon hearings to offer new services, such as open-heart surgery, Mr. Berndt said.

"Those are more like wars than trials, and he won those," Mr. Berndt said.

With an unusually proletarian name for an official state office, the Office of the People's Counsel has been the springboard for the political careers of past Maryland governors, including Albert Ritchie and Herbert R. O'Conor, and a constant irritant to the likes of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., Bell Atlantic Corp. and the Potomac Electric & Power Co.

But Mr. Travieso is stepping into the $69,000-a-year job as the distinction between regulated and unregulated companies is becoming increasingly blurred and once unassailable electric and telephone monopolies are finding their heels nipped at by upstart companies.

Besides the uncertainties of the new regulatory climate, Mr. Travieso will also have to grapple with a 4-year-old case centering on whether BGE or its customers will pay a $450 million tab for a two-year shutdown of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.

But for now, Mr. Travieso is content to follow through on the efforts of his predecessor -- John M. Glynn, who was known for his wit and aggressive pursuit of utility companies.

Mr. Travieso will also be relying heavily on the nine-lawyer staff for much of the heavy lifting, as he familiarizes himself with his new role.

But he also sees room for negotiations with utilities, if it benefits the ratepayers.

"Efforts to work things out do in fact accommodate the interests of residential payers in a reasonable way," he said. "But where those accommodations can't be reached, our office will pursue our clients' interests vigorously, no question about it."

Beyond that, he said his goal is to "do the job as well as I can."

While Mr. Travieso, who began his new job on Sept. 6, has had experience in hospital regulation as a private attorney, he is a relative novice in the field of utility matters. He is so unknown in that industry that his resume became a must-read item among executives after his appointment in early August by Governor Schaefer.

One of these resumes, apparently without any explanatory note, was sent to the Virginia branch of Bell Atlantic -- which promptly responded that it had no job for Mr. Travieso. He wrote back that he already had a job, but would not let Bell Atlantic's hiring policies influence future dealings with his office.

The lack of experience in utility matters -- and the absence of any taint -- is a plus in the eyes of two past people's counsels.

"He's the right sort of person," said Mr. Glynn, who is now a Baltimore District Court judge. "He's in it to do the right thing."

"If you have it [utility experience] you probably come with a lot of baggage," he said.

Gary R. Alexander, a Prince George's County state delegate and people's counsel from 1974 to 1978, agrees that it's better to be free of utility ties -- as he and Mr. Glynn were.

"If he had any utility experience, it would be bad," Mr. Alexander ++ said.

Delving into a new field, reading and learning all he can about the subject, is exactly the kind of challenge Mr. Travieso thrives on, according to his wife, Bonnie A. Travieso.

"It's a job that absolutely suits his interests and talents," she said, saying he is a voracious reader, which carries over to his one obsession -- golf.

"Mike will read anything about golf. . . . If he's not playing golf, he's longing to play golf," Ms. Travieso said. "He'll be playing 27 holes in 100-degree weather."

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