The head of the state Republican Party said Tuesday that Susan Bitter Smith should consider resigning from the Arizona Corporation Commission rather than fighting the bid by Attorney General Mark Brnovich to have her ousted from office.
Robert Graham told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday he has been discussing the conflict of interest allegations with Bitter Smith ever since they were first raised several months ago. He said she told him she “felt very comfortable” that nothing would come of them.
But that was before Brnovich on Monday asked the Arizona Supreme Court to rule she is holding office illegally because she lobbies on behalf of telephone providers regulated by the commission.
That led to another conversation Monday afternoon.
“We talked about the changing dynamics and how it puts things in a very different perspective now,” he said. And Graham said it may not matter if the justices ultimately conclude Bitter Smith is legally correct and Brnovich is wrong.
“It can be an expensive, drawn-out process,” he said. Graham said that means not only the financial costs of having to defend herself — the commission will not use taxpayer funds — but also impacts on family and even getting the commission’s business done.
Graham stressed he is not using his position to tell Bitter Smith to step down.
“When we talked about resignation, that’s one of the options,” he said. “I just said that’s one thing that you should strongly consider.”
There’s also a political implication for the party in all this.
Bitter Smith is up for reelection in 2016. And even if she survives the legal fight she could be politically damaged, potentially opening the door for a Democrat to defeat her in the general election.
If she were to quit — or if she’s forced out — it would be up to Gov. Doug Ducey to name a replacement who, like Bitter Smith, would have to be a Republican.
More to the point, Graham said, that person would go into the 2016 election with the benefits of being an incumbent.
“Now they start to create name ID,” he said.
“They start to demonstrate a pattern of voting on certain issues,” Graham continued. “And people get to know them as an elected person.”
There are two potential contenders waiting in the wings: State Rep. Rick Gray of Sun City and former Sen. Al Melvin who lives in the SaddleBrooke subdivision in southern Pinal County. Both have taken steps to run in 2016 for the three seats: one occupied by Bitter Smith, one by Bob Burns and a third being vacated by Bob Stump who cannot run again.
The suggestion that Bitter Smith step down just because Brnovich has gone to court annoyed Ed Novak, her attorney.
“Some of the facts in the complaint are inaccurate,” he said.
For example, he said Brnovich contends that Bitter Smith’s salary of more than $156,000 a year as head of the Southwest Cable Communications Association is paid by utilities regulated by the commission.
“Not true,” Novak said. “She is paid by Southwest Cable whose members are cable companies that are not regulated.”
And he disputed Brnovich’s contention there is a conflict just because customers can also get regulated phone service through the same providers. He said all someone has to do is look at a customer’s bill to see that phone charges are billed on separate lines, with separate taxes.
“The billing bundle is for the convenience of the customer and, sure, for the convenience of the company,” Novak said.
“But it doesn’t mean that those are all somehow mixed up and create conflicts,” he continued. “It’s two separate companies that bill through one entity.”
Brnovich has disputed that, citing findings of the commission’s own staff that the operations specifically for the unregulated cable side of Cox Communication are “intertwined to a significant extent with its regulated operations.”
But Novak said if Graham is relying solely on Brnovich’s position in suggesting Bitter Smith quit, “he’s mistaken.”
“I think his action is a bit precipitous and premature,” Novak said of Graham’s suggestion to Bitter Smith.
Graham stressed that he has not prejudged the case and that Bitter Smith has the right to defend herself and try to keep her seat.
“That’s what the courts are for,” he said. “People go and make an argument in front of a judge.”
But he said that the case is going to become a distraction.
“It takes away from all the issues that she’s fighting for now as a commissioner,” Graham said.