Almost every year about this time, utility lobbyists start stuffing the stockings of their favorite Georgia Public Service Commissioners.
A smoked ham from El Paso Corp., wine from Atlanta Gas Light, cookies from Gas South. But Christmastime treats are just the caboose on the PSC gravy train. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis of lobbyist disclosure records for the past five years found that Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald has received more than $22,000 in meals, lodging, golf outings and other gifts — by far the most of the five commissioners — followed by Commissioners Stan Wise and Doug Everett. Commissioners Chuck Eaton and Tim Echols received comparatively little.
A single lobbyist, Terry Hobbs of SCANA Energy, accounts for about 40 percent of lobbyist spending on the PSC since 2009. On a three-day trip in March, Hobbs reported spending $2,163 on McDonald —$486 a night for lodging, $235 a day for meals. Hobbs also bought more than 100 dinners for McDonald, Everett and Wise over five years. Everett says his favored dinner spot is the Colonnade in Atlanta, whose famed fried chicken dinner, with two sides, costs $14. Sometimes Hobbs just took Everett. But he also paid the tab for Everett’s wife on 25 occasions since 2009.
The relationships among commissioners and lobbyists encompass more than dinner and drinks. One SCANA lobbyist has been serving as campaign treasurer for McDonald and Everett, who are seeking re-election next year. On a personal level, Everett asked a gas company lobbyist in 2012 to help arrange for his granddaughter to sing the national anthem at a Braves game. The lobbyist not only obliged but also bought Everett’s ticket to the game.
Everett and McDonald last week defended their relationship with Hobbs, saying he is a longtime friend. “I’ve known Terry since I was in the state House,” Everett said. “… Friendships, I think, don’t have to be disbanded simply because you are getting into politics.”
Hobbs told the AJC that it’s wrong to suggest that he can buy influence on the PSC.
“It is the height of cynicism in our political process – and a complete lack of confidence in our elected officials – to believe that their votes are influenced by dinners or efforts to persuade,” he said.
McDonald, who was in Germany last week at an energy symposium, asserted that spending time with Hobbs is not a conflict because the PSC does not regulate SCANA.
But the commissioners have voted repeatedly to award a contract to SCANA worth $21 million over the past 11 years. SCANA is the “regulated provider” of last resort, meaning it sells natural gas to low-income consumers and customers who are denied service by other marketers.
Commissioners vote on the contract every two years — the last vote was in 2012 — and the company has won out over competitors since the program began in 2002.
‘They are a very rubbery rubber stamp’
At least some of the lobbying largess will go away Jan. 1, when a new law nails a $75 cap onto individual gifts to public officials and eliminates most free ballgame tickets.
The focus on lobbyist spending in recent years has been mostly on the state Legislature. But few places in state government have a tighter relationship than utility lobbyists and the PSC, where five elected officials make million- and billion-dollar decisions for utilities and consumers.
Over the past five years, lobbyists have reported spending more than $53,000 on the panel, nearly all of it from utility lobbyists.
“That is just pathetic,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist for groups that monitor the PSC. “They are a very rubbery rubber stamp for the utilities.”
And consumer advocates said the spending by utilities — and the PSC meeting rooms packed with corporate lobbyists — put consumers at a disadvantage.
Liz Coyle, deputy director of the consumer rights group Georgia Watch, said her outfit can get face time with commissioners without the meals and golf outings.
But she added, “I am sure the elected commissioners would say that dinners and things like that don’t influence how they vote. But the perception is there, and I believe it is an un-level playing field. The average person does not have the access to a PSC member that a lobbyist would.”
Gas lobbyist serves as campaign treasurer
No lobbyist spends more money on the PSC than Hobbs. In the past five years, for instance, he has reported spending more than $15,000 on lodging and meals for winter trips with McDonald, Wise and Everett. While Hobbs declined to discuss the trips, Everett said they went on quail hunts at the Riverview Plantation in the Camilla area, south of the commissioner’s home in Albany.
Hobbs isn’t the only SCANA lobbyist with a close connection to the PSC. Brad Carver, an attorney who represents the company before the PSC, has also served as campaign treasurer for McDonald and Everett. Carver is a partner in the same firm as both the current chairman of the state ethics commission, Kevin Abernethy, and a former one, Patrick Millsaps.
When asked by the AJC about his campaign role, Carver said, “I don’t see that being any different than folks making contributions. A lot of people here (at the PSC) have clients and make contributions.”
Nonetheless, in the same interview Carver said he is resigning as campaign treasurer for the two candidates at the end of the year.
None of these relationships is a big surprise to anyone who spends any time at the PSC.
“If people know you are more than willing to accept the offer of a meal or travel, it’s there for you,” said Bobby Baker, a lawyer who was seen as a utility company watchdog while serving on the commission from 1993 through 2010. “They are building a positive relationship so when the time came and something critical came up, that door was always open, that phone call was always taken, that voice was always heard.”
Shawn Davis, a lobbyist representing Atlanta Gas Light and campaign manager for Wise before he began representing utilities, said it’s natural that regulators work closely with companies.
“Lobbyist expenditures are a gesture of appreciation,” he said. “You’re not going to win the day on a bottle of wine. If you could, our citizens would have some very shallow representation.”
Hobbs argued much the same thing.
“Every attempt to convince or persuade is countered by an opposing interest and an opposing argument — leaving the regulator to make an independent decision based on information gleaned from both sides,” he said.
The PSC and your utility bills
Commissioners serve six-year terms and are paid $116,452 a year. Among other duties, the PSC sets rates for electric, natural gas and land-line phone service. PSC members say they’ve kept utility rates low by balancing the needs of regulated businesses — the utilities — and consumers.
The PSC is important because it determines how much you pay the electric and the natural gas company and, if you have a land-line phone, the phone company.
It decides whether Georgia Power may build a nuclear, coal or natural gas plant or add more solar output to the electricity grid. It signs off on expanding Atlanta Gas Light pipelines to move natural gas across the state and approves maintenance on older ones, all of which customers pay for.
The regulators play a significant role in Georgia’s economic development because of the policies they set for electric and gas companies. The state is known for having relatively low electric rates and easy access to natural gas pipelines, giving it a leg up in recruiting large businesses and corporations.
Politics has long played a role in the PSC. The panel deals with some of the most powerful businesses in the state, such as Georgia Power, AT&T, Atlanta Gas Light, SCANA, and a host of politically connected rural telephone companies.
Georgia Power, which heavily lobbies the General Assembly, does not report significant spending on PSC members.
Wine, to start the year off right
McDonald has received more than $22,000 in lobbyist gifts over the past five years, with almost half coming from Hobbs. The SCANA lobbyist has paid for more than 50 of McDonald’s meals during that time, as well as taken him on winter trips and golfing. When McDonald, known for bursting into “God Bless America” on the campaign trail when he ran for governor in 1990, was slated to sing the national anthem at a Braves game in 2011, a Gas South lobbyist reported paying for his ticket.
Lobbyists spent $13,000 on Wise and $11,000 on Everett, again with much of it coming from Hobbs. Echols ran for office emphasizing his independence from utility lobbyists. He and Eaton received less than 10 percent of lobbyist gifts since 2009.
Wise and Everett have golfed on the dime of utility lobbyists, although not as much as McDonald has. Davis reported giving McDonald, Wise and Eaton bottles of wine Jan. 1 to start off 2013 right and gave Everett a $75 gift certificate to Steamhouse Lounge in Midtown.
When Everett’s granddaughter sang the national anthem at a Braves game in 2012, the same Gas South lobbyist who paid McDonald’s way, Meredith Walker Hodges, gave Everett a free ticket.
“Meredith, she’s with Gas South, and Gas South advertises with the Braves, and I asked them to see if I could get my granddaughter to sing the National Anthem,” he said. “She (Meredith) does that for a lot of people … and Meredith did that for me.”
Everett said he didn’t know Gas South paid for his ticket, and he left after the National Anthem.
Hodges said, “I kind of facilitated getting her into the pipeline (to sing) — that was all I did.”
Hodges said the company gets seats to every game and she gave a few to Everett so he and family members could see his granddaughter sing.
‘I feel like I’ve done my job fairly’
Because lobbyists have to report what they spend, Wise said the public can see what’s going on.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I think the scrutiny of government is higher than it is in industry. I’m not naive about the scrutiny that comes with this job and clearly don’t run from any of these disclosures because I feel like I’ve done my job fairly.”
Baker, the former PSC member, said utility lobbyists typically get a lot of “quality time” with regulators at regular conferences in places like Orlando, Denver and Portland.
At a July National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners meeting, for instance, lobbyists for AGL, SCANA, AT&T and Georgia Power spent about $340 on meals for McDonald, Everett and their spouses. Utility lobbyists spent more than $700 on meals for Wise, McDonald and Everett at another NARUC meeting in Orlando in November. The reports list McDonald’s and Everett’s wives attending as well.
Everett defended lobbyists’ access to the PSC.
“They (utility lobbyists) have just as much right to come in here as anybody off the street to see me,” he said. “Our mission is to get lower rates for the consumers, but also to make sure that we remain viable, that the company remains financially viable. It’s a balancing act.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.