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PSC nominee faces ethics questions over dealings with lobbyist

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Art Graham

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-962946.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Despite complaints from consumers, a Senate panel approved Art Graham's nomination to the Public Service Commissioner. James Call reports Graham was forced to explain an extended conversation he had with a utility lobbyist at a Washington, D.C. hotel. Two years ago the water company doubled its rate and now has a rate increase before the commission. Two consumers told the committee Graham's unscheduled meeting with a company executive raised ethical questions about the commissioner.

The Florida Public Service Commission regulates the state's utilities, including electricity, natural gas, water and telecommunications. Graham was appointed by former Governor Charlie Crist last summer and elected chairman by other commissioners in the fall. He faces an ethics complaint filed by a Zephyrhills resident for what Graham calls a casual conversation in a hotel while waiting for a dinner companion.

"The fact of the matter is, I guess I mark it up to a rookie mistake. Now, I guess if I'm sitting at that same bus stop and I sit there and talk to the guy longer than five minutes I'm probably going to catch a cab and not wait on the bus."

The guy who approached Graham was a lobbyist for Aqua Utilities which has a case pending before the commission. Aqua has about 16-thousand customers in 17 counties. It doubled its rates two years ago and is seeking another 30-percent increase this year. Two customers urged the Committee to deny Graham's confirmation because of his conversations with the Aqua representative. The two were participating in a national utilities conference. Graham told the Ethics and Elections Committee he had misspoke when talking to a previous committee about the encounter.

"I jumble my words because dealing with a judiciary point of view we normally refer to things as cases and I said I did not speak to the Aqua Case the entire time. What I meant to say I did not speak to the Aqua people the entire time. I just want to make sure I put that on the record."

The admission did not satisfy David Bussey who filed the complaint against Graham. He said Graham has failed to protect the perception that he can be an impartial arbitrator of rate cases.

"I hope you are wondering why? I know if I had misspoke like that to a senate committee two weeks ago I would have very quickly got back to that Senate panel and let them know that I misspoke. I wouldn't wait and use it as ammunition to protect myself two weeks later from the next committee that I would have to be confirmed by."

Senator John Thrasher quickly rose to Graham's defense and pointed out to Bussey that he needs to read Florida law a bit more closely.

"That statute provides that ex-parte communication does not apply to quote oral communications or discussions in scheduled and noticed and open public meetings of educational programs or a conference or other meetings of an association of regulatory agencies, are you familiar with that statue."

"I don't recall that senator."

And Graham appeared shaken by the public attack on his character.

"I have to tell you ummmmm. I need just a minute. Eleven years being an elected official now nine months being an appointed official. I think that is the only time I have been called a liar. I don't know if you guys have ever been through it but it's amazing to me. But of course you know, I'm the only one
under oath. It would be a different story if we sworn everyone in and started asking questions."

Graham is a Georgia Tech graduate, has run an environmental consulting company and served on the Jacksonville City Council and Jacksonville Beach City Council. He told the committee he has demonstrated the ability to balance competing interests.

"This is one of the things that I am proud of in Jacksonville when I ran in 2003 I was the only county commissioner that has ever ever been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Builders. I mean you can just imagine, both ends of the spectrum but I had the ability to make that balance."

The ethics and elections committee approved Graham's nomination. He still must be confirmed by the full Senate.