PUC members’ trips raise eyebrows

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Energy firms help fund utility commissioners’ travel, and their representatives go along.

The Orange County Register

Members of the state agency that oversees utility rates in California have been traveling around the world on trips paid for in part by energy companies.

Legal scholars and consumer advocates say the trips by California Public Utilities Commission members to destinations such as China, London, Italy, Spain and Brazil provide an unusual opportunity for energy industry officials to forge relationships with decision makers. Not only do companies such as Enron, Edison, Sempra and Pacific Gas & Electric help pay for the travel, but their representatives go along.

The companies are corporate sponsors of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a nonprofit group that funds the annual two-week trips.

There is no doubt that trips like this compromise the integrity of the process,” said Harvard University law professor Elizabeth Warren. It raises a question on whose behalf the PUC members are actually working. Is it on behalf of the public or on behalf of those who pay for the luxurious trips?”

PUC members say the trips help commissioners learn firsthand about issues and do not influence their decisions — nor have the baseball and basketball tickets or dinners they have received as gifts from energy companies.

The trips and gifts are legal, but even one commissioner says they are a source of concern. Commissioner Richard Bilas said he reduced the number of times he went to dinner with industry executives last year as the energy crisis unfolded. Bilas said he will file a report next month that shows one meal with Sempra officials, down from nine dinners and lunches during his first two years on the commission.

I knew there was a lot of people looking at this,” Bilas said. I think discretion is the better part of valor. I try to minimize this as much as I can.”

Consumer groups are most concerned about the trips they term junkets.”

State regulators should be focusing on the energy needs of California consumers,” said Doug Heller, consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. To the extent we need input from abroad, pick up the phone or use e-mail.”

In 1999, Commissioner Carl Wood, a former Edison worker, went to Ireland, Spain and Bavaria with energy lobbyists and state lawmakers. The trip cost $9,060, records show. Former PUC President Daniel Fessler flew to China in 1995 with the same group, just months before the agency issued its first deregulation order, records show.

It is not just who pays for the trips that matters to consumer groups, but who goes. In August, Wood flew to Sweden. The trip was sponsored by the California Energy Coalition and was paid for by the Swedish hosts. Also on the trip was Bruce Foster, Edison‘s top lobbyist.

The year before, Bilas flew to Sweden with the same group, accompanied by Foster.

Utility people and regulators meet all the time,” said John Phillips, head of the coalition that organized the trips. It’s just what environment do they meet in. It’s important for government people to get out of their offices and see what programs are working well around the world. It’s not a junket, it’s work.”

Heller said the trips are a problem, regardless of who is paying.

We need to have a clear distance between the regulators and the regulated,” he said. There is no excuse for utility commissioners to be traveling with utility lobbyists.”

Consumer Watchdog
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