City seeks PSC chief's recusal on BGE merger

August 24, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Baltimore's chief lawyer demanded yesterday that Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler recuse himself from hearings on the proposed merger between BGE parent company Constellation Energy and a Florida utility, saying his objectivity has been compromised by the state Republican Party's payment of his legal expenses.

The motion, filed with the regulatory body by City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, reflects growing sentiment among PSC critics that the agency should halt hearings on the Constellation-FPL Group Inc. merger until after the Maryland Court of Appeals decides on Schisler's lawsuit to bar the General Assembly from effectively firing him and the other commissioners.

"Chairman Schisler should recuse himself because he has aligned himself directly with partisan political interests, and no reasonable person could believe that he will be fair and objective," Tyler wrote.

The commission has been in legal limbo for six weeks, since the state's highest court entered a temporary injunction against portions of a law removing the PSC members with no indication when it will rule or whether it will allow the regulators to stay in their posts.

With the general election less than three months away, the court's decision could have significant political implications.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the most visible backer of the PSC and Schisler, a former Republican delegate who the governor said was appointed because his views matched the administration's pro-business views. On the campaign trail, the Republican governor cites the injunction as proof that the Democratic-controlled legislature, which passed the law over his veto in this summer's special session, is out of control.

Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, played a major role in advocating for the ouster of the PSC members and has sought to capitalize on public discontent about the merger and utility prices to paint the governor as a captive of corporate interests.

Tyler, who works for O'Malley, filed his motion days after the Maryland Republican Party acknowledged using $20,000 from a federal campaign account to pay Schisler's lawyer, Andrew Radding.

Six weeks earlier, two top Constellation executives donated $10,000 each to the party's federal account, campaign finance records show.

The executives, George Persky and Felix J. Dawson, are co-presidents and chief executive officers of Constellation's commodities group, a separate subsidiary from Baltimore Gas and Electric. Neither had contributed to the state Republican Party before.

Both have supported individual candidates from both parties and have given to Constellation political action committees, which donate to Republicans and Democrats, according to state and federal campaign finance records.

Their contributions to the party came in a month when it collected about $1 million from a fund-raiser featuring President Bush.

Constellation spokesman Robert L. Gould said the contributions had nothing to do with Schisler's case. "The fact that two executives made a personal contribution to the state party well before the special session and the lawsuit is a meaningless coincidence," he said.

PSC spokeswoman Bethany Gill said she could not comment on Tyler's motion because it is part of an open case.

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said that if anyone's objectivity on electric rate issues should be questioned it is O'Malley's, given that he has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from Constellation executives over the years. Campaign finance records show that Ehrlich has received roughly the same amount from the company.

"Now Constellation says they are very happy with the way the situation turned out" after the special session, Miller said. "The voters will see that Constellation and Martin O'Malley are the only ones who came out with a good deal here."

The uncertainty over the PSC's fate is causing consternation among those involved with the merger case who wonder why the court isn't acting faster on a matter of widespread public interest.

Lawmakers and others in Annapolis say they can't imagine what's taking the court so long -- a city circuit judge issued an opinion upholding the law just hours after hearing arguments.

"I would think they would be interested in deciding the merits of this case on an expedited basis," said Tyson Slocum, who has followed the merger for Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader. "I just don't think it's prudent to be moving ahead when the composition of the Public Service Commission itself is in doubt."

Earlier this month, several organizations and unions -- including Public Citizen and the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG) -- joined to file a motion with the PSC asking it to hold off on hearing the merger case until after the lawsuit is resolved.

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