State utility commissioner's pursuit of Masters tickets improper, critics say

Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols began criticizing his fellow commissioners for being too cozy with lobbyists even before he took office.

“I am uncomfortable taking admission, taking tickets to sporting events from those that I regulate,” he said.

Yet, using official Public Service Commission letterhead, Echols went straight to the Augusta National Golf Club to request two complimentary practice round tickets to this year's Masters, long after tickets had been distributed to one of the world’s most prestigious golf tournaments through a lottery system.

After more than a week passed without a response, Echols informed the club that he planned to do some regulating.

Echols has since said that he should not have asked for the tickets because of the “appearance of impropriety.” Experts say Echols' letters broke no laws but agree there's a concern about appearances.

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“It’s clear that he’s trying to use the office as if there’s some royal entitlement to complimentary tickets,” said Emmet Bondurant, an Atlanta lawyer whose specialties include ethics cases.

It's common for state officials, including other public service commissioners, to attend the Masters. PSC Chairman Stan Wise has received practice-round tickets through the tournament's lottery system. He and Commissioner Lauren McDonald also have attended as guests of AT&T lobbyists, according to reports on the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission’s website. Commissioners Chuck Eaton and Doug Everett also received tickets from AT&T lobbyists a couple of years ago, and each went after paying his own way.

Echols chose to take a different route.

“As a statewide elected official,” Echols wrote in a March 7 letter on PSC stationery, “I would welcome the opportunity to visit with constituents and guests in our state.” He also pointed out in the letter, which he provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that the PSC “regulates energy, telecom and transportation.”

Echols' request for tickets, which cost $36 apiece this year, came more than 11 months after the May 1 cutoff for entry into the ticket lottery.

After getting no response to the March 7 letter, Echols sent a follow-up letter March 16 to Augusta National's executive director, Jim Armstrong, announcing: “My intention is to spot check limousines that are serving patrons and professionals to make sure that these limousines are properly registered with the state of Georgia.”

In that letter, Echols wanted access to the grounds of Augusta National during the early rounds of the tournament so he could, with an armed Department of Public Safety official, check limo drivers to see whether they were properly licensed with the state. Augusta National denied Echols access, and he later called off the operation after pressure from other commissioners.

“I don’t know that there has been another public service commissioner to be so aggressive in the transportation sector with enforcement as I was trying to be, and my fellow commissioners were uncomfortable with me pursuing rogue companies so aggressively,” Echols said. “... I take my position as transportation chair of the Public Service Commission very seriously and want to serve these groups of people in the best way that I possibly can.”

Echols has conducted similar checks in the past at high school proms. He also ran a “sting” on buses during the 93rd PGA Championship earlier this month at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

For the Masters, Echols said he was concerned about limo companies from South Carolina trying to take business away from Georgia-based companies. He was not acting on any complaints from Augusta National about unauthorized limos.

“It was just a large, public event where I knew there would be a lot of executives and a lot of limos,” he said.

Echols said he went directly to the venue because “I don’t want to be beholden to any lobbyist, especially any lobbyist that I regulate.”

While Echols may not have any regulatory powers over Augusta National, it's possible several of the prestigious club's members are subject to such oversight. Augusta National is tight-lipped about its membership, but a list of members published in 2002 by USA Today included five current or retired employees of AT&T. The telecom giant does business before the PSC, although the agency does not regulate AT&T's rates.

A day after being contacted by an AJC reporter, Echols revised his comments about his pursuit of tickets.

“In retrospect, I should not have sent the letter regarding the Masters tickets because it gives the appearance of impropriety,” he said.

Lawyers and state ethics advocates agree that because the PSC does not regulate Augusta National or golf tournaments, Echols’ request for tickets doesn’t violate an ethics policy.

But they do say it falls into a gray area.

“How many constituents from Georgia can really make it to a Masters event?” asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility for Ethics. She said asking for the tickets was “inappropriate.”

Echols said he wanted to attend the practice rounds because he thought it could benefit the PSC.

“It could be helpful in raising the stature of the Public Service Commission, especially in the Augusta area, which is so close to Plant Vogtle,” Echols said, referring to the nuclear plant near Augusta that Georgia Power is currently expanding.

Echols has used similar arguments in the past to justify trips at taxpayers’ expense to events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah.

William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, questions Echols’ need to attend such gatherings.

“You don’t have to go to a high-profile public event in order to meet with and interact with constituents,” he said. “You can go to the grocery store across the street and meet citizens in the parking lot and talk to them.”

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