Banished PUC panelist gets a break in court

Published on

The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif.: Henry Duque, who was kicked off the California Public Utilities Commission three months ago for violating state conflict of interest laws, has received a legal reprieve that could allow him to serve the last six months of his term.

Late last week, the First District Court of Appeal granted Duque’s request for a stay, allowing him to remain in his position until the legal battle over his case is resolved.

But an attorney at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the group that filed the lawsuit against the commissioner, said the court’s decision could mean that Duque will remain a commissioner even though he invested in a mobile phone company that he was appointed to regulate.

At issue are 700 shares of Nextel Communications Inc. that Duque purchased in May 1999, some of which he held for 15 months. During that period, at least four matters involving Nextel came before the commission.

“He’s already stayed in office two years after he had this illegal conflict of interest. As of that time (May 1999), his office should have been vacated,” said Pamela Pressley, the foundation’s staff attorney. “Now, he’s getting to stretch that out possibly until the end of his term.”

Duque, a former banking executive, was originally appointed to the PUC by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1995. His term expires Jan. 1.

The foundation filed suit against Duque in March 2001, citing a section of the state Public Utilities Code that prohibits commissioners from holding a financial interest in a person or corporation regulated by the PUC.

In early April, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled against the commissioner, rejecting Duque’s argument that he didn’t know Nextel was regulated by the PUC, and ordered him out of office.

But with the appeal court’s decision Friday, Duque can remain a commissioner until his appeal is resolved.

Pressley said she might seek to expedite the process because it could take months to resolve Duque’s appeal.

But Tom Willis, an attorney with Remcho, Johansen & Purcell, the firm representing Duque, said Californians are better served with Duque on the panel.

“There has been no conflict and no vote (by Duque) that has been called into question because of this,” Willis said.

If Duque were forced from his position before the end of his term, then “the most experienced commissioner on the commission wouldn’t be permitted to continue helping Californians through the energy crisis,” he said.

(Contact Emily Bazar of the Sacramento Bee in California at ebazar(at)

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