One Public Service Commissioner and five agency employees exchanged phone calls or instant messages with employees and lobbyists of utilities they regulate.
Some of those calls and messages between agency and utility staff members involved issues pending before the commission. While state law says commissioners can't have those conversations, it's unclear whether the same rules apply to their chief advisers.
The state's appointed advocate for utility customers thinks they should. "The same things that apply to PSC commissioners should apply to their aides," said Public Counsel J.R. Kelly.
The Sun Sentinel obtained more than 2,900 instant messages sent by commissioners and their chief advisers over the past two years on their state-issued smart phones. Most were between regulators about issues facing the commission, exchanges peppered with gossip and jokes.
Commissioner Nancy Argenziano exchanged the most more than 2,400 with her chief adviser on utility matters. Other PSC officials chatted with utility employees, some on pending utility matters.
Office and state cell phone records also obtained by the newspaper between February to September show one PSC employee exchanged more than 130 calls with utility representatives, and four others exchanged anywhere from seven to 47.
The revelations come as the commission has been slammed over what some say are its close ties to utilities.Commission members have said they will discuss in the next few months proposed rules on communication and ethics for themselves and their staffs.
Commissioner Lisa Edgar exchanged six instant messages in one conversation in February 2008 with a former commission employee who lobbies for FPL and other utilities. They briefly discussed a bill on commission appointments and a telecommunication bill. The lobbyist messaged back that a proposed FPL wind mill "is running into some problems with St Lucie commission. Gov has deferred to them on the project. Amazing."
Edgar said she didn't discuss anything inappropriate or "get close to the line."
Bill Garner, chief adviser to Chairman Matthew Carter, exchanged more than 130 calls with utility officials and about 45 instant messages.
In one message exchange, Garner asked for a 15-minute meeting with a Comcast executive and utility lobbyist. In another, the lobbyist asks if he can have an energy efficiency report and Garner says: "When I have it."Roberta Bass, Edgar's chief adviser, exchanged a dozen calls with utility representatives, four calls with former commissioners who have consulted for utilities and several instant messages with a power company executive who says he wants to meet with her to discuss "2 nuke cases."
Bass says "come visit" and confirms the time.
Edgar and Carter put Bass and Garner, respectively, on administrative leave while state police investigated ties between the commission and utilities.Bill McNulty, chief adviser to Commissioner Nathan Skop, exchanged 21 phone calls with utility employees. He said he discussed pending issues because he was told by PSC attorneys that he could, but that he couldn't give information on merits or problems of projects to Skop.
"The standard understanding has been that commissioners' aides are allowed to do that," he said.Garner and Bass could not be reached for comment despite messages left for them.
Julie Patel can be reached at 954-356-4667 and email@example.com