Utility regulator seeks outside probe of heat death

Utility regulator seeks outside probe of heat death

Lea Marquez Peterson at the inauguration of Gov. Doug Ducey on Jan. 7, 2019.
Lea Marquez Peterson at the inauguration of Gov. Doug Ducey on Jan. 7, 2019.

The newest state utility regulator wants an outside investigation of the heat-related death of an Arizona Public Service customer and the policies of the Arizona Corporation Commission and the actions of its staff that may have contributed to that.

Lea Marquez Peterson told Capitol Media Services Monday that the “accountability and answers” about what caused or contributed to the death of Stephanie Pullman of Sun City West last year have to come from APS.

But Peterson, named to the commission just a month ago, said the response she got from the agency’s own staff was “lacking a lot of information.”

Potentially more significant, Peterson said there is the possibility of a connection between the rate hike granted by the commission to APS in 2017 — a deal in which the commission’s own staff was one of the parties who agreed to the deal — and Pullman’s death.

More to the point, Peterson questions whether she and the public can rely on the answers provided so far by the staff to her and other commissioners about the whole incident. That also includes answers that are yet to be provided to what happened — and recommendations for how to alter the rules to prevent similar situations in the future.

“I think an independent group that wasn’t involved in the rate case, a third party, would be the best ones to address these different questions,” Peterson said.

Peterson acknowledged she’s “new to this process.”

“But from my perspective there’s always been such a cloud over APS and the different issues that come before it,” she explained.

“To truly be transparent it should be a third party that answers and investigates what the processes are, what are best practices and submits a report back to the commission,” she said. “We need to understand what the existing process is and what we can do to make it better to protect consumers.”

Bob Burns explains why he was the lone vote against selecting Tom Forese as new chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Bob Burns explains why he was the lone vote against selecting Tom Forese as new chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Commission Chairman Bob Burns said Monday he agrees with the goal but isn’t sure that having an outsider review the practices of the commission staff to this point is useful.

“What are we going to gain by that?” he told Capitol Media Services. “I mean, hindsight is pretty good stuff.”

And Burns said he fears that any outside probe of the commission staff itself will divert attention.

“The real problem is APS,” he said, saying the power company has been “reaching in” to the commission “with all the money they’ve spent on elections.’

“They’re the ones on offense,” Burns said.

One of the outstanding issues is why it took a year — and an inquiry by New Times — to make public that the 72-year-old Pullman died in her home of heat-related complications after the utility cut her power after she paid just $125 of her $176 bill.

“This is simply unacceptable,” Peterson wrote in her request for the outside probe.

“We must work to change the culture here and restore public trust,” she continued. “Initiating a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ms. Pullman’s death, as they relate to the commission, would be a strong first step in the right direction.”

Peterson specifically wants to know who on the commission staff knew about the death last year and who else that staffer told.

“If other staffers were notified, was there ever consideration that commissioners may also want to be notified?” she asked in her formal request for an outside inquiry.

There’s more.

Peterson wants to know whether commission staffers or APS were aware of any other instances where a customer whose power had been shut off was subject to hospitalization, injury, failure of a medical device or other related incident.

And she wants to know how the rules appear to say that utilities can disconnect service only in conjunction with “a personal visit to the premises by an authorized representative of the utility” yet it appears what happened in Pullman’s case was that an outside contractor of APS hung a notice on the door.

“Does a ‘personal visit’ mean an attempted contact at the premises, or does an actual contact and interaction have to take place to satisfy the requirement?” Peterson asked. “Has the commission ever considered resolving these questions.”

Burns, for his part, said Peterson, in calling for an outside investigation to answer her questions, is ignoring the obvious.

“Maybe she needs to have a conversation with Mr. Brandt about why we didn’t get notice from the company when it happened,” he said, referring to Don Brandt, the chief executive of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent of APS.

And Burns appeared defensive at questions of whether the commission’s own rules may have played a role in the incident.

“The commission didn’t shut the power off,” he said.

“So I can’t see where the rules are at fault,” Burns continued. “They may be insufficient. Maybe there needs to be a more stringent rule.”

That, said Burns, is what the commission has directed staff to review.

“We want to get this thing straightened out so it obviously doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Peterson, however, said she is not happy with the response she and other commissioners have gotten so far to their questions.

“I’m concerned with which of the staff actually conducted the investigation,” she said, suggesting maybe they just lack staff or resources.