‘PUC’ Isn’t ‘Pick Up Cash’

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San Francisco Chronicle Editorial

ONE THING that’s worse than a public official enriching himself by engaging in conflicts of interest is a demand that taxpayers should pick up the tab for any legal troubles arising from such wrongdoing.

Given his eagerness to eschew conventional ethics for the sake of making a quick buck, we probably should not be surprised by the temerity of California Public Utilities Commissioner Henry M. Duque, who is now looking for a public shield to protect his job as well as preserving his financial gains.

Duque faces a lawsuit to remove him from office. It contends he violated conflict of interest laws when he bought hundreds of shares in Nextel Communications and made a $70,000 profit in the process.

As the nation’s fifth-largest wireless firm, Nextel is one of many companies regulated or affected in some fashion by the PUC, of which Duque has long been a member.

When confronted with this apparent ethical affront, Duque has pleaded ignorance, saying he didn’t know that he had violated the law or that Nextel had never been on the PUC agenda. This excuse doesn’t wash: The firm has been before the panel several times, and Duque is on record endorsing Nextel-friendly positions.

Duque has hired lawyers to fight the lawsuit, and he expects the public to pay their fees.

“That’s outrageous,” says Pam Pressley of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the watchdog group suing to oust Duque from his post. “The public should not be made to foot the bill for someone who so blatantly violated the state’s ethics rules.”

It’s hard to know whether Duque suffers more from self-deception or greed. The legal thicket in which he finds himself has nothing to do with his official PUC duties. Consequently, he should pay for his own defense, instead of seeking financial help from the very people whose trust he so obliviously trampled.

Consumer Watchdog
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