The Arizona Corporation Commission’s new chairman, Tom Forese, began his two-year term on January 3 with a pledge of “reform,” including implementing a code of ethics, better access to public records, and an audit.
The Corporation Commission needs some help, given its battered reputation. In the past 18 months, a former chair had to resign because of gross conflicts of interest, and another previous chair may have been at the center of a dark money electoral scheme to benefit supporters of the state’s most powerful utility. The commission ran up a $104,000 legal bill paid by taxpayers to hire outside counsel for months of stonewalling on the most basic public records requests, and is now under a federal investigation by the FBI. No wonder 71 percent of likely voters in a Pulse Opinion Research poll taken last year said commissioners were influenced by utilities to the detriment of the public.
So, it’s good that Forese says reform is high on his agenda. Unfortunately, it’s hard to implement an ethics policy when you don’t have one.
Last June, Forese got into a verbal tussle with the commission’s chief legal officer at the time, Janice Alward, over his idea of creating a Code of Ethics for the commission. The problem was, Alward said repeatedly, that it wasn’t on the agenda, making it a violation of the Open Meetings law. But Forese didn’t care. A press release had been issued.
Earlier in 2016, Christopher Kempley was hired to fill a new position as full-time special counsel overseeing “ethics, conflicts of interest, ex parte rules, Open Meeting law,” and all public records requests. Kempley had joined the commission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
But Forese didn’t mesh with either Alward or Kempley, even though each of these lawyers has over 35 years of energy and regulatory experience. According to news accounts and our sources, both resigned just days before Forese took over.
Forese replaced them with the lawyer for former Chairman Bob Stump. That attorney, Timothy La Sota, has no expertise in energy or business law, but is a partisan political operative who will now determine which public records requests are filled or denied. La Sota will have control over the curtain pulled over the commission’s inner workings.
Forese is not off to a good start following his bold pronouncement, were he serious. There are simple steps that he could execute, including posting meeting schedules of commissioners online, and committing to providing all relevant text messages and emails to citizens at their request with a five-day turnaround. He could ban public business over private cell phones and laptops by commissioners and staff. And, Forese could form a nonpartisan panel of ethics experts with no connection to the commission so that citizens concerned about utility pricing and corruption would be reassured by a strong ethical environment.
On ethics, Forese talked big, then stumbled. The job at re-establishing Arizonans’ trust in the Arizona Corporation Commission will require concrete action.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.