Don’t let IURC operate in shadows
2:11 p.m. EST; November 20, 2013
This is in response to the Nov. 12 article “Indiana utility regulator’s job move raises new questions,” in which I was quoted.
First, the move by Commissioner Kari Bennett is the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s loss and MISO’s gain. She is precisely the type of individual the state should strive to have serving as a commissioner. She was exceptionally well qualified, attentive, engaged and interested. Let’s hope Gov. Mike Pence identifies a candidate equal to the task and of the same quality of Commissioner Bennett to fill the huge void she leaves behind.
Second, from the perspective of Citizens Action Coalition, the issue is not whether Bennett should be “allowed” to work for MISO. She, and anyone else, should have the freedom to seek gainful employment that uses their education, experience and interests. The problem lies in the decisions made about how the transition should be made and the way in which the information was presented to the public.
The IURC immediately raised questions and suspicion by issuing a news release with no indication of where the commissioner was going. It was then learned that rather than doing the right thing and seeking a formal ethics opinion (and perhaps requiring a one-year cooling-off period), the IURC chose instead to seek informal approval from the inspector general and then attempted to keep that information confidential. Unacceptable.
It was by its own actions that the IURC found themselves once again on The Star’s front page. Chairman Jim Atterholt and General Counsel Doug Webber have done some good things and implemented many necessary changes since the ethics scandal that resulted in the termination of the former chairman. However, this episode shows there are still some lessons to be learned. What the public needs (and deserves) is to feel confident in the process which should require full transparency, disclosure and an acknowledgment that the rules do in fact apply to them.
There are different standards applied to those who choose to serve at the IURC and have the awesome and difficult task of regulating the giant utility monopolies.
Operating in the shadows should not be tolerated and will be called out. The responsibility of the agency is too important to accept that type of behavior.
Citizens Action Coalition
Here is the original article that the above references.
The newest member of the powerful Indiana state agency that approves utility rates is resigning after less than three years on the job to take a job with a private organization that represents dozens of utilities across the Midwest in controlling the region’s electrical grid.
Kari A.E. Bennett plans to leave the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission on Nov. 22 to take a job as senior corporate counsel with the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, better known as MISO.
Some consumer and open government advocates say the move raises more questions about the revolving door between utilities and regulators, especially in the wake of an unrelated ethics scandal at the state agency.
“Has the commission learned nothing from the ethics scandal?” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. “The revolving door continues to spin out of control.”
Indiana’s inspector general cleared Bennett to take the MISO job, saying the move would not violate Indiana’s revolving door rules because she would not be lobbying the IURC in her new capacity.
Bennett did not return calls Tuesday to The Indianapolis Star to say why she decided to take a job with MISO, or when she began negotiating for the position.
MISO, based in Carmel, represents more than 40 utilities, including Duke Energy, Indianapolis Power & Light Co., Vectren and Northern Indiana Public Service Co., all of which appear before the IURC to seek approval for utility rates and projects. It also represents some citizens’ groups and consumer advocates.
Bennett is one of five commissioners on the IURC that sets utility rates and reviews requests for new power plants. She was appointed in January 2011 by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels to fill the unexpired term of David Lott Hardy.
Daniels had fired Hardy in 2010 as the state's top utility regulator after learning he had several private meetings with Duke Energy executives about cost overruns at its $3.3 billion coal-gasification power plant at Edwardsport in southwestern Indiana. Hardy also helped the agency's top attorney seek a job with Duke while helping to oversee the Edwardsport case.
In September, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he would seek to reinstate criminal charges against Hardy for his role in the Duke Energy scandal. A judge had earlier dismissed four felony charges against Hardy.
MISO is responsible for overseeing nearly 66,000 miles of transmission lines that make up the electric grid throughout the Midwest and part of Canada.
At the IURC, Bennett served as liaison between the agency and MISO over such things as ironing out transmission boundaries that involved Indiana utilities.
Indiana law requires state employees to wait for a year after leaving government to take a job as a lobbyist or with an organization with whom they negotiated any contracts or made decisions that affected their new employer.
The IURC’s general counsel and ethics officer, Doug Webber, told The Star that Bennett would not lobby the IURC or any other of Indiana’s executive offices in her new job.
Webber said he sought and received informal approval from the Indiana Inspector General’s office to clear Bennett to make the move, in an effort to avoid any possible ethics issues.
He provided a copy of the Inspector General’s letter, written by a staff attorney, that concluded that Bennett’s move would not violate Indiana’s revolving-door restrictions.
“This is rock solid,” Webber said.
He also pointed out that MISO was not subject to the IURC’s jurisdiction and did not have any business relationship with the agency. MISO is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But some watchdog groups said they were troubled by Bennett’s move, and how it was announced. The IURC issued a press release on Friday about Bennett’s resignation, but did not say where she was going.
Then for several hours on Tuesday, the agency and the ethics commission both said that request for an informal ethics opinion, as well as the response, were confidential under state law. The IURC ultimately agreed to release both documents.
Julia Vaughn, program director for Common Cause/Indiana, said the IURC continues to suffer from credibility issues.
“It’s discouraging that the IURC and the ethics commission seem to have forgotten all about the dark cloud of impropriety that continues to hang over the utility commission,” she said.
Call Star reporter John Russell at (317) 444-6283 and follow him on Twitter at johnrussell99.