Can We Get You A Tesla To Test Drive? Documents Show Utility And Its Regulators In Contact
Documents obtained by Vermont Public Radio show frequent contacts between top executives of Green Mountain Power and members of the Public Utility Commission.
The PUC acts as the judge in utility cases, and controls both GMP’s profits and rates. The emails and text messages between GMP officials and the PUC members do not violate the commission’s rules, because they don’t involve discussions of pending cases under review.
But advocates who have challenged the utility say the communications are disturbing because they demonstrate a level of access and familiarity between the regulators and the biggest company they oversee.
Most of the messages between GMP and the PUC commissioners are updates on power outages, or forwards of news articles and press releases.
But the emails and text messages that VPR requested under public records law also show that GMP’s vice president for stakeholder relations, Robert Dostis, sometimes reaches out to commission member Margaret Cheney on her personal email. Both are former legislators who served together.
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Cheney said she did not respond to any of Dostis' emails.
Dostis also helped PUC member Sarah Hofmann, at her request, prepare a presentation on electric rate design for a conference early this year in Costa Rica.
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The emails sometimes have a chatty, familiar tone. In email thread from this past August, GMP vice president Brian Otley offers to help PUC Chairman Anthony Roisman find a suitable electric vehicle to buy. The GMP exec says he can arrange for several cars to be in Montpelier for Rosiman to test drive.
Rosiman replies: “Thanks for the loaner offer, but it is probably best that I let the dealer provide that.”
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Geoffrey Gardner saw a lot of the PUC last summer. He was one of 19 people who challenged a change in ownership involving Green Mountain Power’s corporate parent. He knew it was an uphill battle.
“When I hear about a thing like this, I find it more than discouraging,” he said. “Frankly, I would never dream of contacting any of those in a friendly way, let alone make what could only seem to whoever knew about it, a generous offer. I mean, it would be kind be like arranging for my granddaughter to mow a judge's lawn when that judge is deciding whether to suspend my driver's license.”
Gardner was trying to sound the alarm about Enbridge, a large Canadian natural gas and pipeline company, which wanted to boost its ownership stake in GMP’s Canadian owner. The PUC reviewed and ultimately approved the change.
The ad-hoc group of climate change activists had tried to broaden the case by bringing GMP into it, and Gardner’s lawyer had deposed GMP's Otely. The activists' motion to place conditions on the deal involving GMP was pending at the PUC at the time of Otley’s loaner offer to Roisman.
"This is outrageous behavior." — Geoffrey Gardner, activist
“I then learn that within a month, Brian Otley, vice president of GMP, has been sending friendly email messages to Tony Roisman, and offering him favors, I mean to test drive an employee's car,” he said. “This is outrageous behavior."
PUC Chairman Anthony Roisman said he first broached the electric vehicle issue with Otley by asking him about his experience driving an electric Nissan Leaf at the close of a PUC workshop on EVs. The chairman said he’s been looking for an electric car that could handle his long commute from Weathersfield to Montpelier.
“He did not initiate that, I did,” Roisman said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have. But I’m trying to get information, and it’s not so easy.”
In his email, Otley describes the pros and cons of several models, and ends up highly recommending the Tesla Model 3, a $40,000 to $50,000 vehicle. Otley says he could arrange for a Tesla or other EVs models for Rosiman to try out.
Roisman said Otley’s offer was easy to refuse under the commission’s rules.
"If I go out to get a cup of coffee, and somebody says, 'Here I'll pay for it' ... we apply the rules. It's much easier to apply it strictly, so nothing of value can be given to a commissioner by anybody who might conceivably be a party in front of us or who is subject to our regulation." — Anthony Roisman, Public Utility Commission
“If I go out to get a cup of coffee, and somebody says, 'Here I’ll pay for it' ... we apply the rules,” he said. “It’s much easier to apply it strictly, so nothing of value can be given to a commissioner by anybody who might conceivably be a party in front of us or who is subject to our regulation.”
The commission also has rules restricting what are called ex parte communication – discussions about a case that take place outside the hearing room when other parties in the case are not involved.
Rosiman said the emails and texts between GMP and the PUC did not cross this line. He said the one time GMP did send something that touched on a contested case under PUC review, the PUC disclosed it publicly on its website.
“A violation would occur if there had been a communication with us that was not sort of made public,” he said. “Nothing like that has happened.”
GMP spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said the company executives were just doing their job by keeping the regulators informed about power outages and trends in the industry.
"If another utility has fewer communications than we do, that wouldn't be overly surprising. We have about 10 times as many customers as other utilities." — Kristin Kelly, Green Mountain Power
That includes, she said, Brian Otley’s offer of the electric vehicles.
“Mr. Roisman asked Brian about that, he responded, and Brian offered to let him test drive some vehicles, which is something we do for any customer,” she said. “And we’ve done it multiple times.”
VPR also asked the PUC for contacts between two other electric utilities and individual commissioners. The Washington Electric Cooperative sends the commission its quarterly newsletter, but other than that, there was no direct outreach to the PUC from Washington Electric Cooperative or the Vermont Electric Cooperative.
“If another utility has fewer communications than we do, that wouldn’t be overly surprising,” Kelly said. “We have about 10 times as many customers as other utilities.”
That’s not how Philene Taormina, who worked on utility cases for AARP, sees it. She said the level of familiarity between the regulators and the state’s largest utility is disturbing.
“This may be a legal email, but it is shocking in its chattiness and its discussion of a workshop that GMP obviously had just participated in,” she said. "And then offering a loaner Tesla to try out if the commissioner would like. I mean, the PUC has the sole responsibility to regulate Green Mountain Power. This is a back channel communication that is really dangerous.”
Every state has a commission that regulates utilities.
Kevin Jones, director of Vermont Law School’s Energy and Environment Institute, said power companies now have greater influence with regulators and lawmakers in Vermont and around the country.
"That is troublesome, because the goal of these entities should not be to balance the special interest, it should be to work in the public interest." — Kevin Jones, Vermont Law School
“That is troublesome, because the goal of these entities should not be to balance the special interest, it should be to work in the public interest,” he said. “And I think that’s a challenge given the access that utilities have to regulatory and legislative leaders.”
Jones said Vermont actually has stronger rules than some states to limit ex parte communications between regulators and utilities. But he said the overall impression of the emails between GMP and the PUC is that the utility enjoys greater access to the commission than the public at large.