Arizona Republic: Watchdog group seeks e-mail, text records of Ariz. utility regulator Bob Stump

This article by Ryan Randazzo was originally published by The Arizona Republic on April 14, 2015.

Excerpt:

The Washington, D.C., area-based Checks and Balances Project specifically is interested in text messages that Stump might have sent to Arizona Public Service Co. lobbyists or other employees regarding solar policies.

(Photo: Joanna Allhands / The Republic)

(Photo: Joanna Allhands / The Republic)

Stump is one of five elected utility regulators in the state and served as commission chairman when APS asked to raise monthly fees on solar customers by $50 or more in 2013. APS was allowed to add a charge averaging $5 a month at the end of those hearings, and recently asked regulators to increase that to $21 a month.

In a March 11 records request, Checks and Balances Project Executive Director Scott Peterson asked to review any texts and e-mails between Stump and his staff and APS pertaining to solar issues being considered by the commission.

The regulators responded April 8 with a letter indicating there were no text messages that fit the request.

“We think they should look again,” Peterson said.

His organization has retained an Arizona attorney, Daniel Barr of Perkins Coie, to assist in the investigation.

 Continue reading

Washington Post: Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar

This article by Joby Warrick was originally posted by the Washington Post on Sunday, March 7, 2015.

Excerpt:

“The utilities are fighting tooth and nail,” said Scott Peterson, director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia nonprofit that investigates lobbyists’ ties to regulatory agencies. Peterson, who has tracked the industry’s two-year legislative fight, said the pivot to public utility commissions moves the battle to friendlier terrain for utilities. The commissions, usually made up of political appointees, “have enormous power, and no one really watches them,” Peterson said.

Patterson Clark and Joby Warrick/The Washington Post.

Patterson Clark and Joby Warrick/The Washington Post.

 

Op-Ed: Leniency for McDonnell would send wrong signal

This op-ed was originally posted by the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, January 4, 2015.

by Scott Peterson

McDonnellIs this the time for leniency? Former Gov. Bob McDonnell is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge James Spencer on Jan. 6. But with Virginia ranked 47th out of 50 states on the State Integrity Investigation’s Corruption Risk Score Card, the answer is “no.” To be blunt, McDonnell should serve time in prison.

Why? A signal needs to be sent that we’ve turned a corner and corruption will no longer be tolerated in the commonwealth. What better place to start than with McDonnell, convicted last September of 11 counts of corruption for accepting $120,000 in sweetheart loans, lavish vacations and golf outings from a Richmond businessman?

It’s not just that he is the first Virginia governor to be convicted of a crime. Let’s face it. The “Virginia Way” is in peril. For years, the Virginia Way referred to the commonwealth’s efficient and well-managed government. Virginia was different from other states like Louisiana, Illinois or Rhode Island.

But those states all convicted and sentenced corrupt former governors Edwin Edwards, George Ryan and Edward DiPrete to prison. Because of that and other reforms, they now all rank ahead of Virginia on the Corruption Risk Score Card.

The U.S. probation office recommends a minimum of 10 years and a month in prison. McDonnell’s lawyers are pleading for community service. It is hard to believe they are serious.

For anyone who cares about Virginia’s reputation for having a clean business environment, this signals a dangerous lack of accountability. This is an issue that is bigger than just one man.

Although former Gov. McDonnell tried to blame his actions on his wife, the members of the jury did not buy that line of defense. They rightly concluded that the governor’s wife didn’t make him use Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams’s plane to travel to a political event, listen to the CEO pitch his tobacco-based Anatabloc supplement product on the way back, then recommend it to Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources. He chose to do that. Those facts are getting lost in coverage of character letters and calls for leniency.

McDonnell rejected a deal offered by prosecutors to plead guilty to a single count of lying to a bank in exchange for a reduced sentence of up to three years in prison or probation. But he arrogantly refused the prosecutor’s demand that he sign a statement acknowledging his guilt.

Whose advice should the judge follow when he hands down former governor’s sentence?

How about the former governor himself? In 2011, McDonnell issued a public statement on the sentencing of former Del. Phil Hamilton, who had been convicted of corruption.

“Virginia has long been a state marked by honest, transparent and ethical governing by both parties. Today’s judgment is a reminder that no one is above the law. So too was the jury’s verdict after this trial, and so too should be this court’s sentence.”

Former Del. Hamilton is now serving a 9 1/2-year sentence in prison.

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public.

Op-Ed: Corruption put “The Virginia Way” on life support

This op-ed originally appeared in the Virginian-Pilot and PilotOnline.com.

By Scott Peterson

© December 21, 2014

pilotpalone_400x400For years, Virginians had confidence that their state government was run efficiently and well – at least compared to other states. “The Virginia Way” set us apart from other states with seemingly incorrigible corruption in their capitols.

All that has changed recently with a series of events that is deeply shaking public confidence.

It is not just the dramatic corruption conviction of once-popular former Gov. Bob McDonnell, but a series of ugly disclosures that have changed how we think business is done in Richmond.

There was the CONSOL Energy scandal in which an assistant attorney general provided legal advice to help an out-of-state energy company to fight Virginia landowners who were owed millions for gas extraction. There was the federal probe into offers of jobs to then-Sen. Phil Puckett and his daughter if the senator resigned his seat – thus changing partisan control of the Senate.

The State Integrity Investigation ranked Virginia 47th out of 50 states on its Corruption Risk Report Card.

This month’s scandal is news that the Virginia Tobacco Commission gave $30 million to a partner of Dominion Resources Inc., to construct a natural gas pipeline to a new $1.3 billion natural gas-fired power plant Dominion is building in Brunswick County. The commission’s staff recommended $6.5 million. Dominion is listed as a beneficiary on the Tobacco Commission grant application and is co-signer of the contract.

How was the grant increased by $23.5 million to benefit Dominion – one of the richest and most politically well-connected corporations in Richmond?

According to a draft report by the state Inspector General’s office obtained by The Associated Press, Tobacco Commission staffers said there was pressure from McDonnell’s office to boost the award. But McDonnell’s lawyers said he did not lobby the Tobacco Commission. Dominion said it didn’t, either. Hmmm.

The Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission was established in 1998 when Virginia received its portion of a settlement with 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies. Forty percent went to the General Fund and 10 percent to reduce tobacco use and obesity. The rest of the money was put into a $1 billion endowment fund run by the Tobacco Commission to generate cash for community revitalization grants in Southwest and Southside Virginia.

The Tobacco Commission’s chair is Terry Kilgore, a powerful Republican delegate from Virginia’s far southwestern corner. With $122,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion, Kilgore received more money from Dominion than any member of the House of Delegates. Terry’s twin brother, Jerry Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general and GOP nominee for governor, is a partner with Dominion’s Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods.

So far this year, Dominion is the largest donor to state-level politicians, operating three different accounts, with over $1.3 million in contributions. Dominion has donated more than $9 million over the years to Virginia Democrats and Republicans.

The Virginia Way was fundamentally a public trust that our elected officials would not behave like those in other states. Though that trust has been severely injured, we cannot give up trying to restore it. We can and should demand that steps be taken to make this situation right.

Dominion and its pipeline partner, Transco, a subsidiary of the Houston, Texas-based The Williams Companies, must give back the money. They don’t need what is essentially a welfare check to continue eroding public confidence.

The General Assembly should pass a law that restricts members from accepting any political contributions from organizations and corporations with legislation pending before the legislature. The $100 cap on gifts that Republicans and Democrats are proposing is not enough.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw – no stranger to money from Dominion – said last year, “You can’t legislate ethics… either you’re dishonest or you’re not, OK?” Saslaw is wrong that Virginia doesn’t need strong ethics laws, but in one sense he was right. Either Virginia is going to decide to be an honest place to govern, live and do business, or it’s not. It’s time for all of us to decide if The Virginia Way can be saved.

Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a Virginia-based watchdog that holds government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public.

Columbus Dispatch: Group says Kasich evading records request

This article was published in the Columbus Dispatch.

By: Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch – August 13, 2014 11:34 AM

Comments: 0 8 86 130
A group dedicated to shining “a light on the fossil fuel lobby’s influence and propaganda” is warring with the administration of Ohio Gov. John Kasich over his office’s response to its public records request.

In a blog post, the Checks and Balances Project accuses the administration of evading its request for records concerning Senate Bill 310, which weakened Ohio’s renewable energy standards. The law was crafted by majority Republican lawmakers and signed by Kasich.

Simply put, the Kasich administration said in its response letter to the group, no records exist concerning the Check and Balance Project’s areas of inquiry and it failed to sufficiently identify records it sought concerning meetings between the governor’s staff and electrical (coal-burning) utility representatives.

The group was particularly interested in meetings between Kasich staff and conservative stalwarts such as the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity.

There were no meetings involving the Kochs or the conservative organizations, said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. Yes, the governor’s staff met with utility representatives — as did Democratic legislators — but those gatherings did not generate any records, he said.

“We’ve never heard of this organization,” Nichols said. “It should put in a public records request with every Democrat who voted against (Senate Bill) 310 to prove they didn’t meet with Al Gore, the Earth Liberation Front and with (green-energy advocate and Eagles’ drummer) Don Henley.”

Toledo Blade Guest Editorial: On energy bill, Kasich owes Ohioans an explanation

This Guest Editorial originally appeared in the Toledo Blade on Sunday, July 20, 2014.

Excerpt:

“We made this request in light of a recent $12,155 donation — the maximum contribution allowed by Ohio campaign finance law — by David Koch to Governor Kasich’s 2014 re-election campaign. We’re also curious about the significant donations the governor has received from Ohio utilities, such as FirstEnergy.

“Ohioans deserve to know why Mr. Kasich signed Senate Bill 310 even though it could cost Ohio consumers $1.1 billion, could put 25,000 Ohio jobs at risk, and was overwhelmingly opposed by Ohioans, a significant number of major businesses, and the state’s leading newspapers. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, a nonpartisan agency, concluded that the state’s renewables policy would save consumers tens of millions of dollars.”

Industry front group pivots to “If you can’t be right, be loud” strategy

It appears that Colorado oil and gas lobbyists are back to playing their old games of lies and misinformation.

Monday, the industry-sponsored, blatantly anti-science group Energy in Depth (EID) put out new propaganda in an attempt to distract from the truth of how damaging oil and gas operations are to western air quality. In an interesting twist, EID’s Simon Lomax chose to attack Denver Post environmental reporter Bruce Finley as a means of casting doubt on the studies and data Finley references in his stories. Lomox spent a great deal of time and a lot of column inches cherrypicking to try and refute the negative effects of oil and gas drilling pollution on air quality. Our favorite line here at C&BP is when Lomax blames trees for smog.

“…and, not for nothing, those percentages don’t even include the biggest source of smog-forming emissions, which is the “biogenic” category – meaning trees and other vegetation.”
— Simon Lomax, “What Bruce Finley Failed to Mention About Air Quality,” Jan. 29, 2013

EID is a front group that was launched in 2009 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) – a.k.a the natural gas lobby. It has a team that works in various energy producing states where citizens are rightly concerned about the impacts of oil and gas to clean air, clean water, and property values.

coga_eid_tweet
It was disappointing to see that Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) CEO Tisha Schuller decided to insert her group into the theatrics. It was just over a month ago that Schuller began her “charm offensive,” announcing that she would tour Colorado in an attempt to depolarize the debate around drilling and fracking near communities. One way for her to do that would be to publicly distance herself and her organization from disinformation producers like EID. Instead, COGA retweeted EID’s claims.

Speaking of claims, here are a few other facts regarding fracking and air quality that EID would much rather the public wasn’t aware of.

  • According to the EPA, “Methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas…oil and natural gas production and processing accounts for nearly 40% of all U.S. methane emissions, making the industry the nation’s single largest methane source.”
  • According to the EPA, “Some of the largest air emissions in the natural gas industry occur as natural gas wells that have been fractured are being prepared for production.”
  • CU’s Colorado School of Public Health determined that residents living within one half mile of natural gas wells are at greater risk for potential health problems.
  • The EPA has found emissions from drilling, including fracking, and leaks from transmission pipes, totaled 225 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents during 2011, second only to power plants.

Front groups like EID detract from the real conversation around fracking and drilling in the west. Unfortunately, it seems as if industry is turning to them out of fear, as more western communities move to install common sense protections for their residents. If people like COGA’s Tisha Schuller really want to have a depolarized conversation, they need to publicly distance themselves from groups like EID.

Instead, Schuller is doing what every other mouthpiece for Big Oil does, spreading lies and misinformation so that the oil and gas companies she represents can continue to pollute.

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