Donors have stake in PSC decisions

Four of Georgia's utility regulators have accepted at least 70 percent of their campaign contributions from companies and people that may profit from the agency's decisions, a review of five years of campaign finance records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed.

The fifth member of the state Public Service Commission, Tim Echols, campaigned on the promise that he wouldn't take money from employees or lobbyists for businesses regulated by the agency.

Even so, nearly one in five dollars in Echols' contributions came from people or companies whose business is affected by PSC decisions, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found.

Together, the current PSC commissioners took in nearly $750,000 in the last five years, records show. Two of them — Stan Wise and Chuck Eaton — are seeking re-election this year to their $116,452-a-year posts.

The donations from people with a direct interest in decisions are allowed under state law, as they are with most elected positions.

But their campaign opponents have pointed to the campaign contributions to argue the commissioners are beholden to utilities they oversee.

Wise and Eaton counter that fundraising can be challenging among average Georgians because few people are aware of what the PSC does. And they deny the money sways their votes.

PSC decisions affect how much many Georgians pay for natural gas, electricity and phone service. The outcomes of PSC votes are worth millions of dollars to utilities in the state, including the network of lawyers, lobbyists and consultants who do business with them.

A review of major decisions that have come before the PSC in the past five years show utilities have received much — but not all — of what they have asked for.

Authority over utility rates

In the last five years, for example, Georgia Power's rates have risen 24 percent, although they dipped in June. The PSC must sign off on the company's rate changes.

Current and former employees of Georgia Power, its parent Southern Co. and its law firm, Troutman Sanders, poured $52,650 into the campaign coffers of four of the sitting PSC members.

A Georgia Power spokeswoman denied any connection and argued that including Troutman Sanders and other company vendors in an analysis of spending "is false." But critics say including them is critical to capturing the full influence of the utilities on the PSC.

In 2010, the commission increased residential rates for Atlanta Gas Light customers, rejecting the PSC staff recommendation that they be cut.

Still, the increase, the first for AGL since the 1990s, was half of what the company requested.

Employees of AGL, whose costs are billed to residents through natural gas marketers, have contributed $23,850 to commissioners over the last five years.

The PSC also has approved millions of dollars in rate increases for Georgia Power since 2008, including advance collection of financing costs for the nation's first new nuclear reactors to be built from scratch in 30 years. The controversial fee was part of a $844 million tiered rate increase.

In a decision felt throughout the telecommunications industry, the PSC, in a split vote, decided against providing more oversight of rural telephone companies that seek state subsidies.

Critics complain the panel doesn't look out for ratepayers.

"This is the most anti-environment, anti-consumer, pro-big business public service commission I've ever seen," said Mark Woodall, Georgia chairman of the Sierra Club.

Wise said the commission plays a critical role in encouraging Georgia's economic development, which is affected by utility costs and guarantees of enough energy to support business growth.

"We're the little-known impact on economic development in the state. We're customer-ready for a Kia or a Caterpillar for what is reasonable rates," he said.

Getting around a ban

Utilities regulated by the PSC are banned from giving directly to members. Company executives, employees and their family members are allowed to contribute, however, and records show they do.

Vendors and law firms that rely on the utilities for work also can, and do, contribute.

"Troutman Sanders and its lawyers have a long history of supporting candidates across party lines in national, state and local races. We encourage our attorneys to be involved in the political arena and respect their civic right to do so," said a statement from the prominent Atlanta law firm.

Most other states appoint their utility regulators, removing the need for campaign funds.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed campaign disclosures for all five commissioners from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2012.

Some current commissioners joined the panel during that window, so their totals contain less than the five years considered in the review.

The analysis counted donations from current and former executives and employees of utilities regulated by the PSC as well as law firms, lawyers, lobbyists, consultants and family members connected to the companies. Also counted were alternative energy companies, their lawyers and lobbyists.

Those groups funded the bulk of the commissioners' campaigns.

Eaton received 85.9 percent of his donations from companies and individuals identified in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's analysis. Wise received 70.5 percent in donations from that same group.

Commissioner Doug Everett raised 94 percent of his money from those considered in the analysis, and Bubba McDonald took in 85.4 percent.

Candidates running for the PSC generally received far less money than incumbents.

Pamela Davidson, the Republican candidate running against Wise, received $4,250 overall, 42.4 percent of which came from the companies or individuals included in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's analysis.

Matt Reid, the Republican candidate running against Eaton, received $3,850. None of his contributions came from individuals or companies included in that group.

Steve Oppenheimer, the Democratic candidate for Eaton's seat, has raised $121,911, with 7.8 percent coming from those identified in the analysis.

Commissioners say they were simply raising the money needed to hold their jobs.

"The fact is, the only people who have a true awareness of [the PSC], have an interest in it, are the lawyers that work down here," said Eaton.

He said he has difficulty getting friends who contribute to other political campaigns to give him money because they don't see the value in what the PSC does.

Everett called his donations "all legal, and it's all ethical."

Like other commissioners, he took in thousands of dollars from rural telephone companies.

"The thing about it, I've never asked them for a dime. There are situations where I just hate to beg. I don't like doing it."

McDonald declined to be interviewed.

Echols was elected in 2010 and has received 18.3 percent of his campaign cash from companies that have some connection with the PSC, disclosures show.

Echols said he eschewed money from employees or executives of PSC-regulated companies, adding that this removes "the pressure that other officials may sometimes feel when as issue comes up."

But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's analysis showed he received money from solar companies and others in the alternative energy field that have a financial interest in the commission's actions.

Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry said the newspaper's findings make the case for more restrictions on who may give. But that would require a change in state law, and there has been no discussion of such a change.

"It's obvious they are comfortable accepting gifts from those working for the companies they regulate," Perry said. "In general, the public would not be comfortable with that."