State utility regulators on Thursday invited the top executive of Arizona Public Service to answer questions at next month’s Arizona Corporation Commission meeting with the clear implication that, if he doesn’t come willingly they, will force the issue.
“It’s time, past time, that this commission hears from the executive of APS,’’ said Sandra Kennedy.
But don’t expect to find Don Brandt who is CEO of both APS and parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp. sitting in the witness chair when the panel meets on August 6.
“We will be sending our most senior subject-matter official,’’ said company spokeswoman Suzanne Trevino. And she declined to answer questions about what the utility would do if commissioners exercise their legal power to subpoena Brandt.
Kennedy told Capitol Media Services after Thursday’s meeting the offer of having a lower-level executive appear before the commission is not going to cut it
“The person who really needs to come in here is Don Brandt,’’ she said. “He is the CEO of the company and that’s who we really need to hear from.’’
That’s not to say that Kennedy would spurn testimony from other company execs. But she said she wants to pose her questions directly to him.
“He comes in as being the CEO and brings his entourage with him,’’ Kennedy said.
“And as the questions are being asked, he can either respond or say, ‘A better response could come from A, B, C or D,’’ she continued. “But he needs to be in the room and he needs to be present.’’
Commissioner Justin Olson said he’s less concerned about whether Brandt, who earns more than $1 million a month on his job, is the person in the witness chair.
“What’s important to me is that we get the information that’s necessary to properly regulate the utility,’’ he said. Olson said if regulators get what they need from the proffered APS witnesses, that ends the matter.
“If we feel that it is insufficient, that somebody else has the answers that we need, then we will take the actions necessary to get the correct information,’’ he said.
But Commission Chairman Bob Burns said it shouldn’t be necessary to have this two-step procedure.
He said there is information that only Brandt, as CEO of both Pinnacle West and APS, would have. More to the point, Burns said it’s quite different to get an on-the-record answer from the CEO – possibly one made under oath – than from some underling.
“There are things that only his answer carries the true weight of what the decisions were, decisions that he made,’’ Burns said. And the chairman said that, no matter how APS reads the request for testimony, “Brandt is on top of the list.’’
There’s something else. Burns said it is important for regulators to not let APS set the rules for the hearing.
“Symbolically, it says if we can’t bring a regulated executive into the commission, somebody’s not following the [Arizona] Constitution,’’ he said.
Less clear is exactly what regulators want to ask.
Burns said he has no specific questions in mind, at least as this point. He figures individual commissioners will work with staffers to craft a list of questions they want answered and documents they want produced.
Commissioner Boyd Dunn, a former judge, said what he envisions is something like the “discovery’’ process that takes place in civil lawsuits. That usually involves each side submitting questions ahead of time to the other party and providing an opportunity to answer and provide supporting documents.
He said that process is “the best way to get the information you want at that time.’’
More to the point, the process allows APS to “identify the individuals that will have knowledge of this area … and bring those individuals in.’’
But commissioners were careful to spell out Thursday that they are not promising to limit their questions to those given to the utility in advance.
“If I tell you, you’ll tell everybody else and then he’ll know what my questions are,’’ Kennedy said, saying she does not want Brandt primed to give canned answers.
There are likely to be questions about the how the utility established its policies of when to disconnect customers for nonpayment of bills and what efforts, if any, the company make to reach out ahead of pulling the plug.
Those questions arose following disclosure earlier this year that a 72-year-old Sun City West resident died in her home last year of heat-related complications after APS disconnected the power when she had paid only part of her monthly bill.
Utility officials said they followed all procedures. But the commissions own staff said there was no independent proof or documentation that the company told Stephanie Pullman about available assistance from the government or charities.
And commission staffers also said that it was unclear whether placing a door hangar at Pullman’s home, which APS said it did, met the requirement for a “personal visit’’ before a utility can turn off power.
The commission has since implemented an emergency rule prohibiting power shutoffs between June 1 and Oct. 15.