With official permission from the Attorney General, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights filed a lawsuit today in the name of the People of the State of California to remove PUC Commissioner Henry Duque from office. The complaint alleges that Mr. Duque owned stock in a company regulated by the PUC, Nextel Communications, one of the nation’s largest provider of wireless communications service, while simultaneously serving as a PUC commissioner–a violation of a state law that prohibits commissioners from having such interests. The Attorney General issued a formal opinion on the matter November 29, 2000, in response to a filing by FTCR, stating that the conflict would appear to have rendered Mr. Duque’s office vacant as of the date he purchased the Nextel stock.
“Since Mr. Duque has not resigned his post on the PUC voluntarily, despite the ruling of the Attorney General, we are prepared to move forward to allow a court to make the final decision,” said Pam Pressley, staff attorney at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “Given the grave impact of PUC decisions on consumers’ lives, we cannot tolerate commissioners who do not take conflicts of interest seriously. The law requires that commissioners who have financial interests in the companies they regulate must vacate their office and Mr. Duque should have done so without the need to resort to litigation.”
In the November 29 opinion, Attorney General Bill Lockyer stated, “The Constitution requires that as a qualification for holding office as a Commission member, the member must not hold a financial interest in any corporation subject to regulation by the Commission’It would therefore appear that the defendant’s office became vacant immediately upon his acquisition of the 700 shares of stock in Nextel on May 12,1999. The fact that the defendant subsequently disposed of the prohibited interest is immaterial and did not operate to restore him to the vacated office.”
The appropriate remedy for a violation of this conflict of interest statute is an action in quo warranto–a civil action that allows a court to order a public official’s removal from office. The Attorney General has the authority to grant permission to private individuals and organizations to bring a quo warranto action in the name of the People of the State of California.
Mr. Duque will have 30 days to respond to the complaint once he is officially served with the court papers, likely in the next couple of weeks.