A Chandler attorney filed a complaint with the State Attorney General’s Office in an effort to start proceedings to remove Arizona Corporation Commissioner Susan Bittersmith from office. Tom Ryan’s complaint alleges that Bittersmith’s job in the telecommunications industry conflicts with her role as a commissioner in an agency that oversees the industry. Laurie Roberts, a columnist from the Arizona Republic, will tell us more.
TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon" -- a look at continuing problems involving the Arizona corporation commission. Also tonight a new cancer research center opens up in downtown Phoenix and we'll hear about a program aimed at freeing innocent inmates. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."
VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of 8, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Good evening, welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The governor's office today told the Arizona Republic that the governor plans to personally intervene in the hiring of a new for-profit prison company to run the troubled state correction facility near Kingman. The contract with the previous private prison operator was terminated after a report found the company at fault for several days of riots. The governor's office says it wants the hiring process open to public bids after questions arose regarding campaign donations from private prison companies. Department of corrections director Charles Ryan wants to include funding for 2500 new private prison beds in next year's budget. That's on top of the over $17 million that will be spent on new for profit prison beds already approved. The corrections department is asking for more beds to accommodate a growing prison population.
TED SIMONS: Senator John Mccain is again expressing his opposition to the proposed Iran nuclear deal. He called the plan the worst agreement in recent history.
JOHN MCCCAIN: It will clearly trigger nuclearization of other nations in the region without a doubt. There is either weak or nonexistent verification and inspection procedures, and in my view this will have catastrophic consequences over time in the middle east including put the state of Israel in a direct threat to the existence of the state of Israel.
TED SIMONS: Mccain spoke today at an event in Mesa.
TED SIMONS: A Chandler attorney filed a complaint today with the state Attorney General's office in an effort to start proceedings to remove Arizona corporation commissioner Susan Bittersmith from office, this as other questions continue to cloud the five-member commission. Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic is following this. Thanks for joining us. Before we get into the wherevers and what nots, the corporation commission for those not entirely familiar, what is the commission and why is it so important?
LAURIE ROBERTS: In a nutshell it's a five-member elected body, five people with a big impact on your life every month when your telephone bill arrives, when your electricity bill arrives, when you get ready to pay your gas bill. These people regulate Arizona's monopoly through public utilities and set the rates you and I will pay. Coincidentally they also set the profits that those corporations can make. That's why it's so important that we have an independent body, independent commission that regulates these corporations that's free of any influence from the corporations. We need to know that people who are working for us are really working for us.
TED SIMONS: All right, so let's start with today's action against Susan Bittersmith. She's accused of conflict of interest. Registered as a lobbyist, which I find interesting, but she's also head of a telecon trade group which may or may not have actions that involve the commission?
LAURIE ROBERTS: She wears many hats. She is the chairwoman of the corporation commission. At the same time she supposedly -- that is a full-time job, by the way. She also works full-time and draws a salary running a cable communications TV industry -- cable group, trade group that includes telecommunications companies. Again, telecommunications companies are regulated by the corporation commission, and she is a registered lobbyist for Cox communications. She says there's no merit to this complaint because she only lobbies for the cable side of Cox. Well, we all know those of us who have bundled deals we also pay Cox for our telephone service therefore it's a telecommunications company as well that does business for the corporation commission. Thirdly, she has a public affairs firm that she runs that also does business before the corporation commission. So the question becomes who Susan Bittersmith are you representing? Are you regulating these places to give us the best rates that we can get? Are you regulating them to give them the best profits they can get?
TED SIMONS: She says she's "never been employed by any company regulated by the communication commission."
LAURIE ROBERTS: Well, she works for Cox communications. Cox communication is a cable company. They have an entity, an arm of Cox communications that is a telecom company. I'm guessing she doesn't like very often to go up against Cox communications because she's getting money from them. Whether it's a technical conflict from a legal standpoint that Attorney General will be involved in finding problem with I don't know but it has a really high stink factor. They are not the only ones.
TED SIMONS: I was going to say, let's continue with the stink factor and move to another particular odor involving the three commissioners that everyone and their brother believes that the two that were elected were elected with dark money funded by APS, APS isn't denying this so far and yet a third commissioner may have had something to do with getting that money to the campaign.
LAURIE ROBERTS: There's a former commissioner under investigation by the Attorney General's office. Let's start with the three. Let's start with the two. Tom Farese and Doug Little were elected to the corporation commission last year. They were viewed as the more pro APS-sorts of candidates. It's widely believed and by that I mean just about everybody, probably even those two, though I can't say for sure, that APS funneled 3.2 million or more or less but a sizable amount of money into independent campaigns to get those two elected. Going back to the fact that now I pay an APS bill every month and many of you do as well. Doesn't it concern you that they are now beholden to this company. And nobody on the commission will order them to open their books so we can find out for sure if they are.
TED SIMONS: Have they shown themselves to be beholden to APS so far in their tenure?
LAURIE ROBERTS: Thus far, I have seen two votes on both cases that indicate they have sided with APS. One was just a couple of weeks ago. Well, I should say one vote. It was just a couple of weeks ago when APS was asking the commission to consider allowing them to quadruple their rate on solar customers. Their fee on solar customers, not their rate. The administrative law judge that looked this over recommended not to consider that this year. Wait until there's a full-blown rate case next year when everything is laid out on the table. It was a 3-2 vote with both Tom Farese and Doug Little voting against that recommendation and going with APS, saying yes, we will consider this issue this year. That's really the first issue that's come up but it was a 3-2 vote, with bop stump in support of APS's position.
TED SIMONS: There was an agenda item to look at dark money in the corporation commission races and that was pulled by --
LAURIE ROBERTS: Doug little. I talked to Mr. little this morning and he says -- this is a fair thing I think. He says it was a last-minute addition by Susan Bittersmith and Bob burns. We had other complex things we were dealing with. I asked that it be withdrawn from the agenda. Commissioners do that on occasion or possibly more often than on occasion. Any commissioner can pull an item once. So it will come back up again. The question is will one of the others pull it or will we have this discussion that is so desperately needed?
TED SIMONS: We don't even have time for former commissioner pierce, the whistle blower claim that he was close to a campaign official and a campaign operative.
LAURIE ROBERTS: The whistle blower is alleging among other things that then commission chairman Gary pierce had 14 one on one private lunch or dinner meetings with the head of APS. Seven of those meetings while APS was asking for a rate increase. Propriety of that is just questionable. I am told and I checked today and I believe that Mark Brnovich's office will be coming down with some sort of decision on that investigation along with whatever they are doing with Bob Stump's text messages within the next few weeks.
TED SIMONS: Weeks. Okay. Last question. The corporation commission used to be the place where candidates went to hide. Officials would do their job at the legislature or some other place and go to the corporation commission and get work done. What has happened to these folks?
LAURIE ROBERTS: In part it was citizens United that allows corporations to quietly, secretly, legally put money into these campaigns. They figured out if we can buy ourselves a commission if people will give us -- people setting our rates, why wouldn't we? It's a good question to ask the Arizona legislature which has refused to consider any sort of disclosure requirement.
TED SIMONS: And there is no hint of anyone, legislature or the commission, any commissioner, to ask for APS or anyone else to open their books.
LAURIE ROBERTS: From 2014, no there is not. And it is desperately needed. That's how it can show us- the ratepayers that they are independent. Do that. Open up those books. Let us see what's there. What's the big secret?
TED SIMONS: Always a pleasure. Good to have you.
Laurie Roberts: columnist from The Arizona Republic