In case you missed it, the latest in saga of Schisler

August 25, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

It's August -- that all-purpose excuse for not paying attention to business -- so you might have missed the latest episode in that long-running drama, Schisler Agonistes.

Kenneth D. Schisler has been battling to save his job as the chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission since he and the other members were fired by the General Assembly in the flurry of activity that followed the announcement this spring that BGE electric rates were going up 72 percent.

As head of what is supposed to be an impartial regulatory board, Schisler has been controversial for both his ties to the industries he regulates and to the Republicans who have sponsored him.

This week, as The Sun's Andrew A. Green reported, the state Republican Party gave $20,000 to the law firm that filed Schisler's suit to overturn his firing by the Assembly. Further, it turns out, two executives of a company that, like BGE, is a subsidiary of Constellation Energy, previously had given $20,000 to the state GOP.

Oh, what a tangled web.

You do remember the PSC, don't you? This year, when BGE customers were told their electricity rates were going up 72 percent starting July 1, everyone suddenly became conversant on the subject of the usually obscure PSC, which has to approve such increases. A 72 percent increase has a way of getting your attention.

Things started happening fast -- one of the benefits of this being an election year. The city of Baltimore sued and won, with a judge ordering the PSC to hold new hearings and justify such a steep increase. The Assembly reconvened for a special session, and limited the increase to 15 percent for about a year and fired the PSC members.

With the crisis averted, at least temporarily, and with summer BGE bills that seem reasonable -- funny how anything less than 72 percent can seem reasonable -- consumers have gone back into their blissful ignorance when it comes to the PSC.

The peasants have put away the pitchforks that they seemed ready to use to storm PSC meetings, or at least the mansion of Constellation chief executive Mayo Shattuck.

When was the last time you saw a "No Mayo" sign, or a "die-BGE-die" bumper sticker?

It's human nature, of course, to tune out once your pocket isn't being picked quite so deeply, or the guy banging on your head with a hammer switches to a rubber mallet.

But as it turns out, you have to watch this PSC like the proverbial hawk. Not paying attention, after all, is how we got into the mess in the first place.

Business as usual

The PSC members, despite their current existence in an ethereous zone where they've been fired but remain in power because of the lawsuit filed by their chairman, Kenneth D. Schisler, continue to conduct business as usual. Even if they might ultimately be fired, depending on how the appeals court rules on Schisler's suit -- and it's not saying when it will decide.

Meanwhile, we have the side drama of the GOP giving $20,000 to the law firm representing Schisler's suit. Or maybe it's a side comedy: The GOP initially and huffily denied that the money wasn't for the lawsuit -- "We would immediately demand a retraction and a correction" if The Sun suggested that, its spokeswoman threatened -- but a day later acknowledged that, indeed, that was what the money was for.

Stop the presses.

That the chairman of what is supposed to be an impartial board is as entangled with the Republicans, and the Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who appointed him, is about as newsworthy as the fact that he is also entangled with the industries he's supposed to be regulating.

Remember that day in June when Ehrlich held a public hearing to help him decide -- as if there was ever any doubt -- whether to veto the Assembly's rate deferral plan? One of those he picked to testify was Schisler: "Defend yourself, Ken. Defend yourself," Ehrlich said, according to The Sun's report. "You've been demonized. You've been made to be the cause of all things evil over the last couple of months."

No, it's not your imagination, there was a lot of barking and neighing that day.

And remember that day in May, when the city's lawsuit to block the rate increase was heard? The PSC lawyer was running late so the BGE lawyer stepped in to make the PSC's case for him.

Who is regulating whom?

There's an Enronesque stink to all this, reminiscent of when Vice President Dick Cheney held meetings -- secret ones, of course -- to determine the nation's energy policy and invited people like Enron's now-deceased Ken Lay and other industry execs to help him out.

All very cozy

It's all very cozy and mutually beneficial. Except for us peasants out here, who aren't invited to such meetings, or to the hunting trip that a power company official hosted for Schisler and his aides. Nor are we on the e-mail address list that Schisler uses when, say, he wants to discuss political strategies for energy deregulation with an industry lobbyist.

No, the only address this bunch wants from us is the one where we send our BGE bills.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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