Testimony offered on firing practices

3 ex-PSC workers say aim was to make agency friendlier to utilities

May 05, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Three high-ranking former employees of the Maryland Public Service Commission testified under oath yesterday that they were fired to make way for replacements who would be friendlier to utility companies and the governor.

Appearing before a General Assembly panel examining the firing practices of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the workers said Craig B. Chesek, a longtime ally of the governor, orchestrated their ouster. One said Chesek often referred to himself as "al-Qaida."

Chesek is director of administration and operations at the independent regulatory agency and a top adviser to PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler. He was assigned to the department, the three workers said, to clear positions for Republicans.

"He would say, `I'm like al-Qaida,' but everybody would chuckle and laugh," said Chrys Wilson, former manager of external relations for the commission, testifying before a committee investigating whether state workers were fired by the governor's staff for political reasons. " ... It was a regular saying of his around the agency: `Al-Qaida will get you.'"

Wilson and former colleagues Randy M. Allen, the commission's one-time chief auditor, and Blaine L. Keener, former chief engineer, were fired April 15, 2004, along with two other agency employees, and were escorted out of the building by armed guards.

The three workers, who sued the commission to contest their firings, said they were blindsided by the terminations. They said the firings were part of a housecleaning ordered by key administration officials to rid the commission of its "brain trust" and bring in workers who would be more sympathetic to utilities.

"I believe this commission is a pro-utility commission," Allen said.

The ideological orientation of the agency has been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks, with critics saying the PSC has not done enough to protect consumers from a looming 72 percent increase in BGE electricity rates. Some lawmakers have called for the resignation of Schisler after release of e-mails that show him discussing strategy and confidential information with utility lobbyists.

The committee has been on hiatus for months because of the General Assembly session. In six hours of testimony before the panel, Allen, 48, explained that he was responsible for performing audits to determine whether costs charged by the utility companies "were accurate and appropriate according to regulations." He said his reviews consistently indicated that his work exceeded standards.

Allen said that when he was fired, the commission was in the process of licensing utility industry competitors to come to Maryland. Lawmakers who drafted a 1999 deregulation law envisioned competition driving down the price of electricity.

"At the time I left, there were no foreseeable problems because we were developing a proper market or attempting to develop a proper market," Allen said.

Christine E. Nizer, a spokeswoman for the commission, said she could not comment about Allen's responsibilities but said that licensing of electric suppliers is handled by the commission's integrated research planning division.

"There are 81 licensed suppliers in the state of Maryland, so it's a function that continued and continues even to this day," she said.

Allen, who started work with the PSC in August 1999, said he was surprised that he was fired by Andrea M. Fulton, the state's top personnel officer, because she did not work for the PSC, an independent state agency. Allen said Chesek, an aide to Ehrlich during his congressional years and in Annapolis, escorted him to the commission personnel director's office - where he found Fulton waiting.

Allen said that when he asked Fulton why he was being fired, she did not reply. He said she informed him, however, that he could resign and in exchange would receive a "neutral recommendation" from the state.

"That sounds like a threat to me that if I don't resign I'll get negative references," Allen told the committee.

It took Allen, who is married with children and lives in Columbia, 15 months to find a new job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wilson told a similar story yesterday about her firing. During her meeting with Fulton, Wilson tried to pick up the telephone to call her lawyer, she said, but Fulton told her to put down the phone and advised the guards that she should not touch it again.

Wilson, who said Chesek routinely told her that "the governor wants to get his own people in here - it's nothing personal," described a chaotic scene around her firing - with subordinates crying.

She said she went to the ladies' room to compose herself. She said she sat and said a prayer while outside the guards asked a colleague to find out what Wilson was doing in the restroom.

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