Speaker Tobin's conflict of interest

Former speaker Tobin

PHOENIX - A House panel voted 8-4 Wednesday, Feb. 24, to change state law to ensure that the newest state utility regulator can vote on requests by electric companies to hike rates on their customers who have solar power.

But Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, pointed out that when she was a school board member she purposely abstained from voting when the time came to renew the teaching contract of her son.

"Why should the rules be different for you?" she asked Tobin. Fernandez called this "special legislation."

PHOENIX - A House panel voted 8-4 Wednesday, Feb. 24, to change state law to ensure that the newest state utility regulator can vote on requests by electric companies to hike rates on their customers who have solar power.

Attorneys for the Arizona Corporation Commission have told Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, the fact that his son-in-law works for SolarCity creates a conflict of interest. That's because that firm has opposed efforts by Arizona Public Service and other utilities to impose peak demand charges on customers who generate their own electricity, with utilities forced to buy back the excess.

Those utilities contend that customers without solar are effectively subsidizing the cost of operating the grid that delivers power to all homes. So they are asking the commission to let them charge solar customers more, requests in which SolarCity has interceded.

But if utilities get what they want, it could force SolarCity to stop doing new installations and force the firm to lay off people - potentially including his son-in-law who is an inventory control specialist for the company. That's exactly what SolarCity did in Nevada where utility regulators there changed what are called the "net metering" rules.

So commission attorneys, however, told Tobin he cannot vote on such matters. In fact, they even questioned whether he was eligible to be appointed in the first place.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, said he crafted HB 2123 simply to clarify the law.

It spells out that it is not a legal conflict even if a relative is employed by a company that might have some interest in a matter before the commission, as long as the company has at least 25 employees in the state and that the relative "does not assert control or decision-making authority over the entity's management or budget decisions."

Tobin, a former House speaker, told members of the House Appropriations Committee he never thought it was an issue when Gov. Doug Ducey appointed him to the panel last month. That followed the resignation of Susan Bitter Smith after Attorney General Mark Brnovich said her outside jobs and lobbying created an illegal conflict of interest.

He said that following the logic of the commission attorneys would create absurd results.

"Most people would not agree that your sister's husband, who is a receptionist for APS, would exclude you from voting," Tobin told his former colleagues. Ditto, he said, for a situation where a grandchild's spouse was doing landscaping for Tucson Electric Power.

But Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, pointed out that when she was a school board member she purposely abstained from voting when the time came to renew the teaching contract of her son.

"Why should the rules be different for you?" she asked Tobin. Fernandez called this "special legislation."

Allen disagreed, saying Tobin is still subject to other ethics rules that preclude him from voting on issues where he has a substantial conflict of interest. And he said this puts Tobin under the same rules that apply to legislators who can vote on matters that can affect relatives.

But attorney Tom Ryan, who first brought the allegations against Bitter Smith to Brnovich, said there's a reason utility regulators are held to a higher standard.

He pointed out the commission has unique constitutional powers that cover executive, legislative and judicial functions. Ryan said that is because the panel is charged with regulating the rates of companies that have been granted monopolies, with customers forced to buy their power from the utility that has the service area.

And Ryan took a specific slap at Tobin for coming to the Legislature to argue for the change in the law that would allow him to vote on these issues.

"The idea that he is down here testifying on this bill, HB 2123, should shock all of you, it should be stunning to you," Ryan said.

"He should be 100 miles away from this bill," he continued. "It indicates to me that Commissioner Tobin has a difficulty understanding his own conflict of interest."

Daily Courier

 

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