Arizona Corporation Commission Transparency

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The Arizona Corporation Commission has had more than its share of controversy recently. That has prompted commissioner Bob Burns to call for more transparency from the commission. Burns will discuss the issue.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon." Corporation commissioner Bob Burns will join us to discuss transparency issues facing the commission. And we'll learn about local efforts to help Syrian refugees. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Two board members of the state's industrial commission have resigned. The agency's executive director has also quit, this after reports that the board members claimed excessive per diem payments. The "Arizona Capitol Times" reports that payments to commission chairman David Parker and vice chairman Michael Sanders totaled over $27,000 in fiscal year 2015, and that the commissioners at times received payment for reading news articles or responding to email. The industrial commission is charged with enforcing state laws to protect Arizona workers. The Arizona corporation commission has had more than its share of controversy of late. So much so that commissioner Bob Burns is calling for more transparency from the commission. Commissioner burns joins us now. Good to see you again. Thanks for being here.

BOB BURNS: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Are you concerned with the corporation commission's integrity?

BOB BURNS: Definitely. And most of my concerns sort of centers on the issues of the 2014 election and the perceived spending that was done, perceived, anyway, by APS, that was not reported. It was third-party was the ones that actually did the spending. So, I think it has put a cloud over the commission, and so I would like to try and prevent that from happening in the future. You know, APS is -- I have a lot of respect for APS. A company that has served Arizona for many, many years very well. And at the commission, we meet with employees of APS. They're always very professional. Very courteous. And, so, you know, it's not at that level. I think what I'm concerned about is sort of one activity, one behavior problem, as I would put it. And that was the amount of money that was spent supposedly in the commission race on behalf of commissioners and actually in opposition of some of the -- some of the candidates. So, my first take on all of that was don't focus on the 214. Thing about the future. How do we prevent it from happening in the future? Well, in order to get to the bottom of what happens if the utility is not cooperative is the authority of the commission to subpoena records and require reporting by the utility. So, my thought was we won't look at 14. We will concentrate on 16. If it appears that there is same type of behavior going on, then we will require that there be reporting. Well, since this thing is all sort of come to the head in the last couple of weeks, the argument now has become that okay, you can look at the records, but you can't look at the records relative to the freedom of speech issue. Whether or not the utility can participate in elections. So, my take on this was that there is a need for a test. There is a need for a test by the commission to determine where does the authority lie and how much authority does the commission actually have? I believe we have a considerable amount of authority, and I think that now might be the time that we need to exercise that.

TED SIMONS: So, are you ready to go forward then and do what needs to be done to inspect -- and, again, now, you're saying that you don't necessarily want to look at 2014. Why not?

BOB BURNS: Well, I just didn't see any value added. I didn't see -- I mean, the perception is everybody seems to think all of this went on during 2014. What more -- what more would be done by going through that? But if we could prevent the same type of thing happening in '16, we would be ahead in the whole process. Well, my thinking is shifting somewhat. Because of the, sort of the push-back that I have gotten because of this issue, the -- I want to see a test case. I want to see the corporation commission do what I believe it is charged to do, and to determine whether or not the authority that I believe exists, according to the constitution, article 15, sections 3 and 4. Three spells out our responsibilities. Four spells out our authority. So, do we have it or not? And, so, when I say that, and I say I want to subpoena records, the immediate push-back was that you can't look at the stuff that happens in the election. That is first amendment protected. And I don't believe that. I don't believe that's true. And, so, if a test case is going to take place, I think it has to be tied to an election process of some sort. And if we're going to do this, with the push-back I already have, and the push-back that I expect in the future with road blocks thrown up for whatever reason, there is a time element that needs to be taken care of. So, I believe that the issue of examining records needs to be tested now. We can't wait until '16 when the election is in full swing or even maybe through with the primary, for example, to say okay, it's time to look at the records and then find out there is all sorts of push back, court cases and whatever that would prevent us from getting done in a timely matter.

TED SIMONS: It could be argued if you look at the books for 2014, A, you can find out procedures, what was done, who was talked to, when, where, why, and how, which would also -- again getting back to the integrity, a lot of folks are concerned that at least two, more than likely three commissioners that are -- your fellow commissioners are so beholden to APS that they are not having the taxpayers and the constituents, I should say, constituents first in thought. I mean, if you go back and look, doesn't that answer more questions than are even asked?

BOB BURNS: Well, maybe. I think the two commissioners that are in question at this particular point in time in my opinion came in under the wire, if you will. Because this is the first time that the utility has been accused of participating at the level that they participated at. And, so, those -- and those two candidates had no knowledge of what was being spent on their behalf until after it was spent. I mean, that -- that's the whole thing with the independent expenditures. You cannot communicate with the candidate --

TED SIMONS: You're not supposed to communicate with the candidate.

BOB BURNS: Right.

TED SIMONS: There are thoughts and there are records and we can talk about lost iPhones and these sorts of things that suggest that maybe some of that occurred. Again, why not find out? A lot of rate payers, a lot of folks out there wondering did the guys have my interest at heart or are they APS people there?

BOB BURNS: Again, I'm saying, my thought processes are shifting closer to that point because if there is going to be a test, a test of the authority of the commission to look at books and records, then it needs to be done sooner than later. And if one of the issues that has to be addressed is whether or not it is okay for the commission to look at records during elections because of the freedom of speech issue, then there is only 214 -- 2014 is the only one that we have.

TED SIMONS: Are you ready -- it only takes constitution -- certainly -- it only takes one commissioner to --

BOB BURNS: That's my understanding.

TED SIMONS: Are you ready to do this? You said you want it done sooner or later --

BOB BURNS: I'm asking our legal staff to sit down with me and prepare a -- a subpoena. I want to see what the document looks like, what all is in it, and what authority I would have, but I have to be prepared, I believe, to be able to go forward and get around some of the road blocks that I anticipate. So, I can't just jump out and say I want to subpoena your records today. I want to see whatever you have. I think there has to be a very thorough process in order to do that.

TED SIMONS: But if the process continues to take time, and these questions continue to linger and the integrity of the commission continues to fester, are you ready to make that jump?

BOB BURNS: I think I am, yes. I think this is a serious, serious issue. This is a -- an issue where the commission, in my words, has a cloud over it on this issue alone, regardless of what else is happening. This issue alone has put a cloud over the commission. The commissioners, I think, it's also put a cloud over the utility. I think, you know, it -- it doesn't bode well for what happened to them. The employees of the commission, I mean, everybody involved here is under this cloud, and I think we have to do something, and if I have to do that, I'm prepared to do it.

TED SIMONS: That cloud obviously conflict of interest is the major cloud there. There are other conflicts of interest going on, arguments, concerns, with the commission. Overall thought is that the commission is just too cozy with those it regulates. Is that a valid argument?

BOB BURNS: Well, I don't know that there is any proof of that. I wouldn't -- I wouldn't go that far. And I -- I think there are -- there are a number of people out there who could have the support of the $3 million number, for example, that is being thrown around and still have the right vote, okay. I mean, have the right mindset. Especially I think in the case of the two there now, because this is like I said, they got in sort of under the wire. One of my other concerns, if this practice is allowed to continue, what kind of candidates do we attract to the commission and how does that affect the future? I'm more concerned about the future than I am the past, but, again, if the past is the only tool that I can use to sort of straighten things out, then I'm prepared to do that.

TED SIMONS: We have you here and we have to ask you regarding registering as a lobbyist, a concern with you and a concern with commissioner Bittersmith. You registered a telecom lobbyist during the campaign. Were you still registered during the campaign?

BOB BURNS: Well, I didn't register. What happens, if an organization wants to lobby, they have a lead lobbyist. And the lead lobbyist usually puts down people. Now, I was serving on a console that was working legislation. And, so, having been in the legislature, obvious question is would you be willing to maybe go and talk to a legislature if we need you to. Okay. Fine. I'm supporting the effort and would do that. I ended up being registered without my knowledge because that is how the system works. Once you're on the list, you can't take yourself off. The lead lobbyist has to take you off. I didn't even know I was on the list. So, when I got to the commission, I asked legal, I said, this consul I'm on, do I need to get away from there? They said yes, you need to resign. I resigned. Had no knowledge of the lobbyist issue and so I thought I was out of it until recently.

TED SIMONS: Yet it is another appearance, for lack of a better word there, an appearance of conflict, commissioner Bittersmith all sorts of -- should regulators be looking on the side for businesses that have interests before the commission?

BOB BURNS: Well, no, obviously not. But there is debate about whether that is the case, especially in the Bittersmith. She says that she is not working for those certain groups that appear before the commission. In my case, I wasn't working for anybody. I wasn't paid. I didn't even know I was on the list. So, I -- and I did testify at one committee. I testified on my own behalf without representing anyone --

TED SIMONS: Do you understand that constituents are concerned about the conflict of interest --

BOB BURNS: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

TED SIMONS: If it is not a conflict of interest, yours, more to commissioner Bittersmith, it certainly looks like that and it gives the appearance and we are back to the integrity issue.

BOB BURNS: Appearance is important. So, I think it is up to the commissioners to try to, you know, alleviate any appearance that doesn't look legitimate. I mean, that's part of the commissioner's responsibility in that position.

TED SIMONS: Critics are saying all of these things tied together, everything from the campaign to the conflict of interest regarding lobbying and this sort of thing, it just shows that commissioners don't fully understand their role on the commission. Do they have a point there?

BOB BURNS: Well, I don't know. I mean, I -- I came into the commission after spending time in the legislature. I believe I understood that. I mean, that was an issue in the legislature, too. In a different level. You don't -- you don't sit as a judge at the legislature. But I understood that, and with our new director at the commission, this last election cycle, she put together some basically some classes for the new commissioners to sit in on and be educated on how important that particular issue is. I mean, our legal staff constantly reminds us that this is an issue, that we need to be very aware and don't allow any appearance of conflict to exist or to even be considered.

TED SIMONS: But, again, you can understand constituents hearing about, you know, corporation commission phones being tossed, texts being deleted, these sorts of things. You sit out here and you wonder what's going on. There has to be a concern.

BOB BURNS: Well, I, yeah, it is a concern. I mean, you obviously want everybody to be squeaky clean, some people make mistakes, honest mistakes. The process has to take its time to work through these things and see what is actual fact and what is perception and what is accusation without merit and that kind of thing.

TED SIMONS: Do you think some of the commissioners who may have expressed strong opinions one way or the other on solar, one way or another on APS, should they recuse themselves? There is a claim they're biased and they can't afford to be biased. It's a quasi-judicial board.

BOB BURNS: It is not my expertise to determine that. I don't know how that gets determined exactly. To my understanding, the judges that sit in the courts have opinions outside of the court on occasion. So, you know, I don't know what that level is there to make that determination.

TED SIMONS: So, if you were to subpoena APS, wanted to get to all of the records and find out exactly what was going on, would that be it? Or would that be part of a larger effort to get companies that are regulated by the commission out of campaign finance activities involving the commission?

BOB BURNS: Well, to get them out of being involved in the election of the commissioners, okay. They still have their freedom of speech to, I think, in my opinion, what APS should have done instead of trying to support and oppose certain commission candidates, that's -- that effort should have been out on the -- in the public. If they should -- if they felt they were being unfairly attacked, they should have made that case in the public and not come to the election process.

TED SIMONS: Okay. Last question then. Why should the public right now have confidence in the corporation commission?

BOB BURNS: Well, I think we need to restore that confidence. We need to do what we can to restore that. That's my goal is to try and get things back on an even keel. Let's restore the confidence in the commission as much as possible. I'm focused on this election side of things. The other issues I'm not going to get involved in that. That is other people's efforts to take care of that, and not mine. So, I want to see what I can do to, what I believe would be to basically clean up this election process. Now, the utility will still have the legal right to do exactly what they did before and support candidates. But I believe if they do, then that needs to become public record.

TED SIMONS: People need to know about it.

BOB BURNS: Yes.

TED SIMONS: Commissioner, good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

BOB BURNS: All right. Thank you.

Bob Burns:Commissioner

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