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Political fight brews on Corporation Commission

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The lone Democrat on the Arizona Corporation Commission is accusing its newest member of “using her office to advance her election chances.”

In a filing at the commission, Sandra Kennedy said that Lea Marquez Peterson appears more interested in pleasing Gov. Doug Ducey, who appointed her, and Don Brandt, the chief executive of the parent company of Arizona Public Service, than in actually getting answers from APS about what led to the heat-related death of a customer last year.

The move comes as Kennedy is pushing to force Brandt and other top corporate executives to come to the commission to answer questions, under oath, about the company policies and practices, particularly as they relate to when customers are disconnected. She already has the support of Commission Chairman Bob Burns for that move.

Lea Marquez Peterson

Lea Marquez Peterson

But Peterson told Capitol Media Services she’s not sure that’s appropriate − at least not yet. She instead continues to promote an outside probe of what happened, including the actions of the commission staff.

Only then would she consider bringing in someone from APS or parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp. And she’s not sure it has to be Brandt.

Kennedy, for her part, said Peterson is loath to take that step “because she is beholden to Mr. Brandt and Pinnacle West for campaign contributions,” a clear reference to the money donated to her ill-fated 2018 congressional campaign. And then there’s the fact that Peterson, tapped by Ducey to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Andy Tobin, has to run in 2020 to keep her post.

“Perhaps Commissioner Marquez Peterson is worried about her own political future as a Republican without Don Brandt and Pinnacle West supporting her,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy also suggested that Peterson was acting in “seeming coordination” with the governor who appointed her, noting that Ducey last month accused the commission of “mission creep,” getting into areas beyond its clear constitutional authority to set rates.

But Peterson denied that the governor discussed his claim of “mission creep” when he interviewed and appointed her to the commission.

Peterson also dismissed Kennedy’s overall comments, made both in a formal filing at the commission and to Capitol Media Services, as a “political response” to her calls for an outside probe.

“I’m just really focused on responding to the public and the media who requested additional information and how we come up with policies to protect Arizona’s ratepayers,” she said.

Sandra Kennedy

Sandra Kennedy

And Peterson suggested that there’s also politics behind Kennedy’s attack on her. She pointed out that Kennedy is campaign manager for Bill Mundell, one of the Democrats running for the three available slots on the commission on that 2020 ballot.

But Kennedy isn’t the only one questioning whether Peterson is playing politics and is loath to push too hard against APS.

“She was working with the state Chamber which has very strong ties to APS,” said Burns of Peterson, including backing the company’s successful effort to quash an initiative to force all utilities to generate more power from renewable sources. “The position she was in before she came to the commission would indicate that she has a connection with those folks.”

Now, said Burns, Peterson has a new position.

“And where you sit depends on where you stand,” he said. “So we need to know where she stands.”

Questions remain as to whether Brandt actually will be subpoenaed. And some of them are legal.

Last year Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Kiley concluded that Burns, as a member of the commission, has an individual right to issue a subpoena for the books of not only APS but also Pinnacle West. More to the point, the judge said that individual right of commissioners extends to the ability to subpoena corporate executives to testify.

But Kiley said none of that matters because, at least at that time and on that issue, the other four members of the commission refused to enforce the subpoenas. And the judge said he lacks the legal authority to overrule that.

That leaves the question of whether there is now a working majority to force Brandt to testify.

“I would support full disclosure as to the facts of the situation,” said Commissioner Boyd Dunn. But he said that doesn’t necessarily have to come from Brandt. And Dunn, a former judge, said a more logical first step might be for commissioners to subpoena any documents they want, review those, and only then call in corporate executives to question them.

That’s also the position of Justin Olson, the remaining commission member.

“It’s incumbent on the commission to do everything within our power to ensure that we have proper oversight of our utilities,” he said.

“That includes gaining all of the information that’s necessary to provide that oversight,” Olson said. “If we’re not getting the information that we need to provide that proper oversight and a subpoena is needed, then that’s the action the commission should take in order to get that information.”

Peterson, on the job now for only about a month, said she hasn’t researched the issue of subpoenas. But she’s not ready to go there — at least not now.

“I think the first reasonable step is further investigation,” Peterson said. “And if the commission as a whole decides to move forward, that’s something we can discuss at that point.”

But is she interested in hearing from Brandt?

“I’m interested in hearing from APS in terms of different questions that have been addressed to them,” Peterson said, saying responses could come from “the APS team.”

 

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