The two-year long saga of secretive “dark money” and the GOP culture of corruption surrounding the Arizona Corporation Commission came to a head this week in the televised debate on Arizona Horizon (video).
Arizona Corporation Commission candidates Bill Mundell, Tom Chabin, Andy Tobin, Boyd Dunn and Bob Burns debate Tuesday night at KAET-TV with host Ted Simons. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
The Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required) reported, Democratic Corp Comm candidates side with Burns, push for APS investigation:
The two Democrats running for the Arizona Corporation Commission showed solidarity with a current Republican commissioner over an outstanding investigation into a utility’s role in the 2014 commission election, telling voters electing the bipartisan trio the best way to push the investigation forward.
Republican commissioner Bob Burns has been investigating Arizona Public Service and its parent company Pinnacle West Capital Corp., which some speculate contributed to the $3.2 million spent in support of Republican Commissioners Tom Forese and Doug Little in their 2014 campaigns through dark money groups. The utility has not confirmed or denied any involvement. Burns issued two subpoenas in August to open the companies’ books and even attempted to contract an out-of-state lawyer to conduct an investigation.
“I believe when a regulated utility spends at the rate APS was perceived to have spent in 2014 … it puts integrity at risk,” Burn said at a Clean Elections debate on Arizona Horizon Tuesday.
Bill Mundell, a former commissioner, and Tom Chabin, a former state lawmaker, sided with Burns and said they would help protect APS ratepayers by pushing the investigation, if elected.
And while nobody at the debate advocated for unbridled election expenditures by utility companies, Burns did not receive as much support from fellow Republicans Boyd Dunn and Commissioner Andy Tobin as he may have liked.
Dunn, a former judge, did not express a definitive opinion one way or another. He emphasized that the utilities have a right to spend in the elections thanks to Citizens United and said the courts would likely decide the issue, since APS sued over the subpoenas.
Tobin said his biggest issue with the investigation was Burns’ attempt to hire an outside lawyer to investigate the involvement of the utility companies in the election, because the lawyer’s previous work with solar companies precluded a fair investigation. Solar company SolarCity has spent heavily via an independent expenditure committee to re-elect Burns this year. Save Our AZ Solar, a SolarCity-funded IE, has so far spent $140,000 in the general election to help elect Burns and Mundell.
UPDATE: SolarCity already spent about $688,000 backing Republican Robert Burns, and reports another $140,000 has been spent to support him and Democrat William Mundell. Meanwhile, the political-action committee of the Arizona Association of Realtors has $1 million and has begun advocating for Burns and the other two Republicans in the race, Andy Tobin and Boyd Dunn. Contributions flow to candidates for Corporation Commission.
But Tobin also has a SolarCity connection. In a tense moment, he bristled at the mention of ethical standards for conflicts of interest, and claimed moderator Ted Simons singled him out because the commissioner — who assumed his position after former Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith resigned following a conflict-of-interest investigation earlier this year — has a son-in-law who worked for the solar company.
A “tense” moment? Andy Tobin was positively unhinged as recounted by the The Republic’s Laurie Roberts:
At one point during Tuesday night’s KAET debate, Commissioner Andy Tobin appeared ready to come across the table after the moderator, Horizon host Ted Simons.
This, because the always professional-nobody’s-patsy Simons dared to bring up the issue of conflicts of interest.
Tobin, as you may recall, was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to fill a vacancy as a result of Susan Bitter Smith’s resignation due to a conflict of interest.
Apparently, Ducey couldn’t find a single qualified Arizonan who could actually could vote on rate cases without potentially affecting his various relatives. So he turned to Tobin, whose son-in-law worked for SolarCity, a rooftop solar company that is in perpetual combat with Arizona Public Service and other electric utilities.
When the commission’s attorney informed Tobin that he couldn’t vote on the major rate cases coming up this year given the commission’s conflict-of-interest law, Tobin took immediate action. The former House speaker got Ducey and his pals at the Legislature to change the law, lowering the standard so that he could vote despite his son-in-law’s employment.
Cue Simons at Tuesday’s debate (starts at 36.25): “What constitutes, do you think, conflict of interest while on the Corporation Commission.”
It seemed a logical question, given that the issue of conflicts has swirled around this commission for the last two years – ranging from Bitter Smith’s activities, to suspicions that APS secretly spent $3.2 million to get a pair of commissioners elected in 2014, to Tobin’s successful effort to weaken the commission’s conflict-of-interest law.
Democrat Tom Chabin replied to Simons’ question with a lengthy answer detailing why a strong conflict law is important, and pointing out how Tobin got the law changed.
Immediately, Simons turned to a visibly upset Tobin, so that he could reply.
Here’s Tobin: “Well, Ted, I’ve just got to tell you, I don’t know whether you think you’re Candy Crowley or not but this seems like a set-up question to me.”
Simons: “Oh, my goodness, no. It’s not a set up. It’s not a set-up question.”
Tobin: “It is a set-up question.”
Simons: “We had a corporation commissioner who resigned for conflict of interest.”
Tobin: “…This is not that and you know it. So my son-in-law gets fired from Solar City and it’s still not enough for you. And I’m going to tell you … when I went to the Legislature … when I went to see them and bring that (a proposed change in law) over, what this says is that a working class person who has no management vlue, isn’t involved in budgets shouldn’t be asked to resign from their job if someone in their family is running for office. Everybody really agreed with that. In fact the Democrats did, too, until the stories came out. So I share with you that there is no conflict of interest going on with me at all, especially now that they’ve fired my son-in-law so I hope a lot of you are thrilled but at the end of the day, I have never been bought by anybody. And APS has no money in my account for anything. Yet, yet Ted, here we sit at this commission, we’ve got two commissioner (candidates) who are on Clean Elections, trying to share with everybody how high on the hill they are and they’re giving money to their own party to run their campaigns – $25,000 apiece. So your taxpayer money going to them is going to the Democrat state party. I’m not made any of those contributions, Ted. … So I’m offended by you bringing that up.”
Simons: “Well, I’m sorry that you’re offended by that but voters want to know about conflict of interest.”
Tobin: “Then you should know the facts that my son-in-law was fired anyway and if that makes you happy, then I’m glad for that.”
Simons: “Then you’re welcome to bring out the facts but please don’t suggest that this is somehow a biased affair.”
Tobin: “It is because you decided to play to the Democrats.”
Simons; “You’re incorrect, sir. You are incorrect.”
Tobin: “You are incorrect.”
Eventually, the debate got back on track.
Here’s Comissioner Bob Burns: “I would agree there ought to be a code of ethics, but a code of ethics, I believe, is significantly weakened if we allow the utilities to contribute millions of dollars in a campaign and then not report.”
Burns is the only commissioner trying to get to the bottom of whether APS spent $3.2 million in 2014 to help Commissioners Tom Forese and Doug Little land spots on the five-member commission. Such an outlay of cash would pose a major conflict of interest for both commissioners, who just coincidentally will be voting on APS’s request for an 8 percent rate increase next year.
* * *
Thus far, no one on the commission is supporting Burns in his effort to open the books of APS and its parent, Pinnacle West Capital Corp. Among the six other candidates running for office, only Democrats Tom Chabin and Bill Mundell have pledged to join with Burns in trying to pry open the utility’s books.
Thus, the importance of the conflict-of-interest issue in this race.
(Back to the Cap Times):
Chabin and Mundell hope to break the GOP monopoly on the commission. Both fervently voiced their support for Burns’ investigation, and said that, if they win, the majority of the five-member commission would support an investigation into APS and Pinnacle West.
“This commission needs to establish a rule that is clear: if you are a government-created monopoly, you must reveal every single political contribution,” Chabin said. “The one issue (voters) face is the integrity of the commission itself. It’s a very, very critical thing when the records at APS and Pinnacle West are subpoenaed.”
Mundell criticized Burns’ colleagues for their lukewarm response to his efforts, especially Dunn. Mundell said that now Dunn wasn’t a judge, he should be more proactive in his efforts.
So here’s the thing: while you have three votes in the Corporation Commission race, you need to vote strategically. There are more Republican leaning voters statewide than Democratic leaning voters. So you should just vote for the two Democratic candidates, Tom Chabin and William “Bill” Mundell, and hope for the best with Bob Burns. If you cast three votes including Burns he might win, but he is also likely to knock out one or both of the Democratic candidates because of the GOP voter advantage.