Proposed Corp Comm ethics code takes aim at lobbyists

Rachel Leingang//January 4, 2018

Proposed Corp Comm ethics code takes aim at lobbyists

Rachel Leingang//January 4, 2018


The Arizona Corporation Commission may ban lobbyists from buying food or gifts for commissioners and require lobbyists at the commission to register with the state.

The lobbyist registration and gift ban ideas were floated in a recently released draft of a code of ethics by the commission, something the embattled regulatory body has been considering for nearly two years.

The code of ethics came as a response to years of public scrutiny of utilities’ influence over the regulators as millions in campaign money flooded commission races in the past two election cycles.

The eight-page code, drafted by Commissioner Boyd Dunn, who is an attorney, draws from existing state and federal laws, and ethics codes from other public entities.

Much of the ethical code is already required by law. For instance, commissioners must follow open meeting laws and cannot violate rules prohibiting them from communicating on ongoing proceedings. They also have to follow campaign finance and public records laws.

The code is a draft and will be amended before a final adoption from the full Corporation Commission, which is expected by March.

People who lobby at the commission would be required to register as a lobbyist before communicating with commissioners, similar to the registration required for lobbyists at the Arizona Legislature. The registry would be maintained by the commission and available on its website.

The lobbyist registration wouldn’t apply to people who represent themselves or attorneys who work for parties involved in commission proceedings, though.

The gift ban would prohibit commissioners from soliciting or accepting “food, refreshments or other items” purchased for them by people who have business before the commission.

But the ethics code doesn’t prohibit commissioners from accepting food or items of “nominal value,” as long as the purpose of the spending isn’t “designed to influence official action.”

For any items valued at more than $20, commissioners would be required to file quarterly reports disclosing what they have received from people or organizations they regulate.

Commissioners can still attend lunches or dinners related to the industries they regulate. And they can still accept reimbursements from outside organizations to travel to events if the events are educational or the commissioner is participating.

Dunn said in some scenarios, it’s clearly inappropriate for commissioners to accept meals from outside parties, namely when there is a rate case going on and the party is involved in it.

But the commission doesn’t have the same sort of culture with constant lobbyist meals that the legislature sees, he said.

“We don’t have lobbyists standing around in the hallway waiting to take a corporation commissioner out,” he said.

As for conflicts of interest, aside from what’s already prescribed in law, commissioners would be asked to “self-regulate their outside activities to minimize the risk of conflict,” according to the ethics draft.

The commission would also designate people on its staff to manage public records and ethics issues, if the code is adopted.

As a way to promote transparency and accountability, the code would also “encourage” commissioners to make their official calendars available to the public on a quarterly basis, which would be posted on the commission’s website. Such calendars are now available through a public records request.

The code also noted state law that prohibits commissioners from using their political influence or position to fire, promote or demote commission employees or to hire or not hire people at the commission.

Instead of writing its own harassment policy, Dunn pointed to federal laws that prohibit harassment, including sexual harassment and harassment aimed at members of protected groups.

As far as enforcement of the code, Dunn said many of the provisions based on state statutes would require an outside entity like the Attorney General’s office to intervene.

But some of the provisions aren’t based on current laws, like the lobbyist registry, gift ban and required reports of money spent on commissioners.

For those provisions, Dunn said he will rely on an ethics officer to train commissioners and their staff on the rules and the importance of following them. But the implementation and enforcement of the new ideas will be policy decisions made by the commission as the code moves forward, he said.

Because everyone currently on the commission wanted a code of ethics, Dunn said he’s “assuming that everyone is going to follow the rules.”

Dunn still wants to hear any feedback on the proposal and asked for comments to be filed in the docket or with his office by January 19. After that, he will hold another workshop to update the code in early February, with the hopes of sending a final code forward to the commission for its approval by the end of February, he said.