Private vote OKs rate plan

E-mails show close relationship of commission chair, lobbyist

April 29, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

Scores of e-mails released yesterday by the Public Service Commission illustrate a close relationship between the agency's chairman, Kenneth D. Schisler, and an influential utility company lobbyist and lawyer who until a few days ago was listed as representing BGE during merger talks before the commission.

Carville B. Collins formally withdrew as BGE's lawyer Wednesday, according to a letter sent to the commission by his law firm, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.

That was just one day before Schisler aggressively defended the financial dealings of BGE and its parent company, Constellation Energy Group, in the face of criticism at a stormy public hearing. Later Thursday, at a private meeting, he spearheaded approval of the rate-deferral plan that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had negotiated with Constellation officials.

Yesterday, the same day that the e-mails were released, the PSC decided to accelerate a scheduled hearing on the merger between Constellation and FPL Group, a Florida utility, by more than a month, from October to late August.

Though his law firm's letter, dated April 26, did not reflect it, Collins said in a telephone interview that he withdrew from representing BGE in the merger case in February because of a conflict with another client, Pepco Holdings Inc., which had decided to intervene in the matter.

Schisler did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.

Besides Pepco, a lobbying client, Collins has also lobbied on behalf of Columbia Gas of Maryland, Allegheny Energy and MCI.

Collins also has direct ties to Ehrlich, having served as chief counsel to the governor's transition committee.

The e-mails, released pursuant to a public records request, show Schisler asking Collins to review drafts of official letters before distributing them to lawmakers and discussing people to hire at the regulatory agency.

Collins also offered to help arrange an expenses-paid industry business trip to New York City for Schisler and suggested that the commission chairman bring his wife.

"If it were me, I might take my bride to see a show or something the night before," Collins wrote to Schisler in a November 2004 e-mail released as part of a public records request.

The e-mails also show that Collins and Schisler developed a specific strategy for how to deal with a committee of lawmakers that must approve regulations proposed by the PSC.

"Please don't forward this but if you like what I am saying here you can make it your own idea," Schisler wrote to Collins in July 2005. "I am torn between simply letting the regs go into effect or throwing johnny w a small bone in order to get him to bring it up for a committee vote." "Johnny w" is a reference to Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Southern Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Administrative, Executive, and Legislative Review Committee.

The next day, Schisler elaborated on his strategy: "I can act like it is a matter of principle and a big deal and then give in, and let johnny wood take the credit for forcing me to compromise."

Critics say the e-mails provided more evidence of Schisler's unacceptably close ties to the industries his agencies regulate. The Public Service Commission under Schisler's watch is under intense scrutiny for how it has handled a 72 percent rate increase for BGE customers scheduled for July. Consumer groups say their concerns have been ignored.

"They are your worst nightmare," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, referring to the e-mails, released yesterday in response to public records requests from The Sun and The Washington Post. Frosh had called for the resignation of Schisler after the disclosure of previous e-mails last month.

"They are manipulating the legislature," Frosh said. "I'm at a loss as to even how to describe it. ... The price of electricity is out of control. The Public Service Commission has had the opportunity to do something about it and done nothing. ...

"And here's why: It's because the lobbyists for the utility industry are running the Public Service Commission."

"Impeaching the credibility of PSC members is not going to change the fact that lawmakers had seven years and 90 days to fix their mistake and they simply refused to do it," Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said in a response to e-mailed questions. "The PSC is simply trying to fix the legislature's mess."

Collins said yesterday that there is nothing improper in the discussions.

"My view is that there is nothing wrong, nothing inappropriate, nothing illegal and nothing unethical about any of these communications," Collins said. "These are communications between a regulator and an interested party."

One e-mail exchange discusses a potential hire or adviser for the Public Service Commission. The discussion appears to center on Angel M. Cartegena, whose biography is attached in a subsequent e-mail. Cartegena served as the chairman of the Public Service Commission in the District of Columbia, a paid position, from 2000 to 2003.

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