Consumer Group Upset At CPUC Snub

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A dispute is turning testy between a Santa Monica nonprofit and the California Public Utilities Commission over intervenor compensation — the money paid to advocates for expert testimony and other evidence that contributes to regulatory decisions.

Consumer Watchdog, the decades-old organization founded by insurance-reform pioneer Harvey Rosenfield, is accusing utility regulators of unfairly rejecting its application to intervene in a power-charging station proceeding from Pacific Gas & Electric.

The commission said the consumer group is unfit to intervene in PG&E’s application to develop a network of charging stations for electric cars across Northern California.

“There is no affirmative statement in the articles that Consumer Watchdog is authorized to advocate, litigate or appear before the commission to represent the interests of residential customers,” commission judges Darwin Farrar and Karin Hieta wrote in August.

Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court called that ruling preposterous, noting that his group has initiated or participated on behalf of consumers in dozens of proceedings before state agencies, including the utilities commission.

In a sharply worded letter sent to commission President Michael Picker earlier this month, Court said the judges were deliberately delaying a decision on the group’s amended application, filed in September.

“Delay is the unaccountable bureaucrat’s tool of denial, and Consumer Watchdog is caught in its web,” wrote Court, who asked Picker to intervene and direct the judges to extend the deadline for filing testimony in the case and issue a ruling on the group’s application.

Picker refused, sending Consumer Watchdog a three-paragraph explanation dated Dec. 9.

“Statutory law and the commission’s rules set forth the substantive basis and process for overseeing cases and administering the commission’s Intervenor Compensation Program, and I accordingly decline to interfere with the (judges’) orderly administration of this case,” he wrote.

The Intervenor Compensation Program pays consumer groups and individuals millions of dollars a year for providing information and expert testimony that often counter-balances the information supplied by well-funded applicants such as PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Critics have often complained that the fees are awarded to those groups that avoid wholesale resistance to utility projects and instead tend to work more closely with utilities and regulators to reach consensus on various proceedings.

For example, the San Francisco-based group the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, receives the majority of compensation awarded by the commission — about 45 percent of every dollar paid in the past three years.

TURN last month accepted $290,000 in intervenor payments for work it performed on the matter of the San Onofre nuclear station failure, a proceeding that billed ratepayers $3.3 billion for the premature closure of the power plant in 2012.

TURN accepted the funds even though it later repudiated the settlement its lawyers negotiated with Southern California Edison earlier this year.

Originally called the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights, Consumer Watchdog was founded in 1985. Three years later, the group succeeded in qualifying and passing Proposition 103, the landmark effort to reform the automobile insurance industry.

In a follow-up letter to Picker, Court said his leadership to date is little different from his disgraced predecessor Michael Peevey, whose La Canada Flintridge home was searched early this year in connection with a criminal investigation into improper communications with utility executives.

“Mr. Peevey’s troubling tenure was notable for its silencing of ratepayer advocates who were too outspoken for the investor-owned utilities and the commission itself,” he wrote. “For too long, the California Public Utilities Commission has played favorites, coddling the utilities and offering a pretense of public participation while the actual decision-making occurred in unlawful meetings behind closed doors.”

Ten other groups, including TURN, have filed applications for intervenor compensation in the PG&E case. None have been approved to date and one other organization, Plug In America, was rejected.

The PG&E application calls for establishing a network of more than 25,000 electric-car charging stations across the company’s Northern California service territory.

If approved, the plan would generate billions of dollars in new revenue for the company. Critics of the application say it would wrongly charge all PG&E customers for a network that only benefits electric-car owners.

Edison and SDG&E have filed similar applications with the utilities commission.

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