Someone in Montgomery has a Chip on her shoulder, and she’s dying to let you know. Twinkle Cavanaugh, president of Alabama’s Public Service Commission, is on a crusade against her PSC colleague, Chip Beeker, and if you haven’t heard about it yet, don’t worry: you will.
Beeker was the subject of recent media scrutiny — including here in the Montgomery Minute — over a potential real estate deal that would’ve had Beeker receiving more than $5 million over about 25 years for the lease of personal property in Greene County to a solar energy company. The potential lease led to widespread condemnation of Beeker, whose job on the PSC is, at least indirectly, regulating the very company from which he’d be set to receive millions.
Twinkle Cavanaugh, constant campaigner, read up on all of that condemnation, and now she’s making her rounds, crying out to all who will hear.
“I was absolutely shocked and disgusted when I read in the newspaper that my colleague had hired a lawyer to ask [the Ethics Commission] if he could lease land to a solar company wanting a contract with the very company that we regulate,” Cavanaugh told press after the proposed lease had become public.
Don’t get me wrong — I actually agree with Cavanaugh on the basic issue: of course Chip Beeker should not sign a $5 million lease with a company he’ll potentially regulate. Regardless of whether the solar company wanting to lease the land knew of Beeker’s position on the Public Service Commission, Chip did, and that should’ve ended the whole process. But it didn’t.
Instead, Beeker went to the PSC’s in-house ethics guru — administrative law judge John Garner — and asked what he thought of the offer. And here’s the kicker: Judge Garner didn’t say no. Garner advised Beeker that he is “within his rights” to pursue the contract, but asked that Beeker go to the Alabama Ethics Commission for a concrete yes or no (they eventually disapproved of the deal, 3-2). That’s not how Twinkle Cavanaugh will tell the story, though.
“I believe and it really saddens me that this commission has lost its way,” Cavanaugh said of the events. That’s only part of the truth.
Really, Twinkle is glad that someone’s stepped up for her to run against. In her past elections to the PSC, Cavanaugh has effectively run not against other candidates for PSC president, but against Barack Obama, the president of the United States. “We will continue to fight Obama and his out of control, job killing EPA,” she proclaimed during the last election cycle. Well Barack Obama’s not running anymore. He’s no longer the “Chip” on her shoulder. Beeker is.
For his part, Beeker, who of course should’ve never opted to pursue the lease in the first place, said he did everything right, and if you’re willing to forgive him for trying to make $5 million off a solar energy company to begin with, he’s pretty much right.
“As my name has been dragged through the mud and the muck just a few minutes ago,” Beeker said in a statement released just after Cavanaugh’s first condemnation, “I would like to publicly say that everything I did, I did with the blessing of Judge Garner. When I got a call in the spring, could somebody come see me and look at something, I said, ‘I’ll let you know.’ And when I had his blessing and permission, I did.
“And with that, then, I took it to the Ethics Commission, exactly what I was supposed to have done, and got a 3-2 vote. Some said yes, some said no.
“I started to leave it alone. But I wanted to clear my name. For I’ve done nothing, absolutely nothing but the letter of the law and the blessing of the judge. Those are the facts and I appreciate being able to say that.”
Again, letting him off the hook for pursuing the contract in the first place, everything Beeker said there really is true, and it leads to the biggest eye catcher of them all.
After Cavanaugh had issued her public statement, she wrote a letter to the Ethics Commission in which she explained what she described as the PSC’s crucial role in deciding the parameters of solar energy deals, a role that she said gives commissioners proprietary information and would create a conflict of interest with Beeker’s potential contract. Sounds true, right? Well, not really.
After her letter was sent to the Ethics Commission and made public, the PSC’s very own ethics head — Judge Garner — wrote to the commission to clarify: most of what Cavanaugh had said just wasn’t true. Yes, the commission would play some role in setting these parameters, but according to Garner, the role isn’t a critical one and as for the proprietary information, he wrote, “it is very unusual for Commissioners to independently avail themselves of such information.” Basically: Twinkle was campaigning, not getting the facts straight.
Since all of this, Beeker and his colleague Commissioner Jeremy Oden have proposed new administrative rules they say will help prevent similar issues in the future, including rules requiring 24 hours’ notice to add an item to the PSC agenda, requiring disclaimers that letters from one commissioner do not represent the views of all, and allowing for staff to be present at meetings with other commissioners. Twinkle hasn’t handled these proposals very well.
“I believe and it really saddens me that this commission has lost its way,” Cavanaugh said. “And now, my colleagues, in retaliation to me for standing up against what is clearly wrong and sending a letter to the Ethics Commission, are willing to shut down the commission’s communication and transparency without ever thinking about the effect it’s going to have on the people of this state.”
As for his part, Commissioner Oden has said the new measures aren’t aimed at Cavanaugh, but at preventing issues in the future.
“The back room discussions happen when we walk onto this dais and we have no clue about what’s being presented. That’s a back room discussion. Secondly, asking a commissioner to put his identifying mark on his opinion protects this whole entire commission.”
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