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Under pressure, Bitter Smith resigns from Corporation Commission

With her attorneys in the background, Susan Bitter Smith details Thursday why she is resigning from the Arizona Corporation Commission in the face of charges by Attorney General Mark Brnovich, which she disputes, that she has an illegal conflict of interest. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

With her attorneys in the background, Susan Bitter Smith details Thursday why she is resigning from the Arizona Corporation Commission in the face of charges by Attorney General Mark Brnovich, which she disputes, that she has an illegal conflict of interest. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith is resigning from the Arizona Corporation Commission effective January 4.

Bitter Smith has been under tremendous political pressure following a decision by Attorney Mark Brnovich to ask the Arizona Supreme Court to remove her from office because of a conflict of interest.

In a hastily-called news briefing this afternoon, Bitter Smith said the case and the ensuring media fury are causing a distraction from her work as regulator.

“I fear the distraction will continue. The public deserves the full attention of the commission,” she said, adding her ability to do her jobs at both a cable TV association and at the commission has been “impeded.”

Brnovich argued that Bitter Smith is not eligible to hold her office because of her ties to companies she regulates.

Bitter Smith, a Republican, is a registered lobbyist for Cox Communications and serves as executive director of the Southwest Cable Communications Association. Brnovich said those ties mean she has a “pecuniary interest” in decisions made by the Corporation Commission.

She maintained she does not have a conflict of interest and her work as a cable TV representative is not directly regulated by the commission. It’s not a “gray area,” she said – she clearly did not break the law.

Still, the commission’s work was hampered by media reports and outside influences, so she decided to resign, she said.

“I hope that the outside noise will dim down so that the commission can focus on the really, really important issues it has to do,” Bitter Smith said.

Despite her resignation, Bitter Smith said she wants the case against her before the Supreme Court to proceed.

“I feel so strongly that this is an issue that needs to be put in front of the people,” she said.

Ed Novak, Bitter Smith’s attorney, fired back at Brnovich in a filing to the Arizona Supreme Court late last night, saying his effort to oust the commissioner from office are “attenuated,” “nonsensical” and “absurd,” so the Supreme Court should deny his petition.

Brnovich had argued that her ties to Cox and the cable trade group constitute an “official relation” and “pecuniary interest” in entities with business before the commission.

But none of the entities Bitter Smith works with are directly regulated by the commission, Novak argued. 

Bitter Smith’s job at the commission pays $80,000 annually, while her role as executive director of the cable TV association tops $150,000. But, she said, it’s important to consider that she’s the only employee at the association.

She said she “stands on her principles” with her work as a commissioner, despite Brnovich’s recent move for removal.

“I’m very proud of my record and I’ve served those constituents extremely well. And because I think this job is so important and I love it as much as I do, I think it’s important to allow this work to continue without all the unfettered stuff that’s been circling around,” Bitter Smith said.

Gov. Doug Ducey will appoint a replacement for Bitter Smith upon her resignation.

Commissioner Bob Stump said it’s a “sad day for the commission and for all of us on a personal level. Susan is an outstanding commissioner and it’s a loss for the state of Arizona.”

Meanwhile, PR guru Jason Rose, who represents the solar industry, said he hopes that whoever replaces Bitter Smith would be independent. “The hope is that we get a fair and impartial appointment, and not an Arizona Public Service stooge,” Rose said.

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