Reprieve for utility regulator; Duque may stay longer on PUC

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The San Francisco Chronicle

Embattled state utility commissioner Henry Duque can remain in his position for at least four more weeks, despite a judge’s ruling removing him from office for investing $27,000 in a wireless telephone company his agency regulates.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Alfred Chiantelli agreed this week to suspend his order until May 30 to give Duque, a seven-year veteran of the California Public Utilities Commission, time to appeal.

An appellate court could also decide to put the ruling on ice for several more months while it considers the case.

“We’re obviously pleased,” said Duque’s attorney, Thomas Willis. “There is irreparable harm whenever someone is removed from office.”

Duque’s attorneys have long argued that Duque’s investment in Nextel Communications in May 1999, first reported by The Chronicle, was an innocent mistake.

But the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica watchdog group, has been trying to oust Duque since October 2000, arguing Duque flouted the state’s conflict-of-interest rules.

“We don’t think (the ruling) should be stayed for another day,” said foundation attorney Pam Pressley. “The public’s harm outweighs the personal harm to Duque. . . . The public can never go back and undo any of the PUC‘s votes.”

Even if Duque ultimately loses the case, the Los Altos Hills resident could come close to completing his term, which expires at year-end, because of routine court delays.

Attorneys for both sides predicted that an appellate court will issue a final ruling before he is scheduled to leave office. “The case won’t be moot,” Pressley said.

Since Commissioner Richard Bilas left in March, Duque has become the lone Republican appointee on the PUC, which regulates telecommunication firms and other utilities.

Duque’s departure could still shift the balance of power on the five-member commission. Some observers say he has formed a voting bloc with Gov. Gray Davis‘ most recent appointees, Michael Peevey and Jeff Brown. Both commissioners signed sworn statements supporting Duque’s efforts to remain in office during his appeal.

“Mr. Duque is the longest-serving commissioner, and the commission needs his expertise in the coming months,” Peevey said.

In addition, without Duque, Brown warned that many matters could wind up deadlocked in 2-2 votes until a replacement is named.

E-mail Todd Wallack at [email protected].

Consumer Watchdog
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