Speakers at rate hike forums usually didn't disclose relationships
By Julie Patel
10:01 p.m. EDT, September 12, 2009
More than a third of the customers, politicians and business leaders who praised Florida Power & Light at three South Florida forums on a proposed $1.3 billion rate hike have financial or family ties to the company and its employees, a Sun Sentinel analysis found.
Nearly another third who backed the utility have connections to FPL through business and civic organizations.
On Wednesday, state regulators -- the Public Service Commission -- will hold a final hearing on the utility's request for its largest rate hike. In 10 days of hearings in Tallahassee, FPL officials said several times that most speakers at the nine public forums held around the state this summer had spoken favorably about the utility.
After the forums, Florida Public Service Commissioner Nancy Argenziano complained that FPL lined up speakers in its favor.
"Accepting the irrelevant testimony has the potential for poisoning the fact-finding purpose of the hearing and, in fact, debases and diminishes the value of the input," she wrote in a letter to the commission chairman.
She also asked if customers' payments cover charitable donations. "We cannot take from Grandma Jones, by way of rate extraction, to give to the Boys and Girls Club," the letter said.
Three of the forums were held in June in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Plantation. The Sun Sentinel analysis found 16 of the 79 individuals who voiced support for FPL or the rate hike are employed by nonprofits or a town that received donations from the utility or its affiliates.
Two elected officials who spoke in favor of FPL got campaign contributions from an FPL lobbyist.
Two speakers are related to FPL employees, and 12 more volunteer for groups that received donations from FPL. Among the volunteers are people who organize fundraisers to which FPL donated.
Eleven of the FPL backers told the Sun Sentinel they were personally invited by utility staffers to testify. Most of those who spoke for FPL did not reveal their ties when testifying.
During one of the Tallahassee hearings last month, Senior Assistant Attorney General Cecilia Bradley asked FPL President Armando Olivera if his employees pressed people to testify on the company's behalf.
"I'm not aware of specific instances," Olivera said. "I'm sure that people that we have on the ground in the local communities notified personally some of the constituents that we have to attend."
Utility spokesman Mark Bubriski defended FPL's practices and said the utility has not attempted to improperly influence testimony to the Public Service Commission. FPL invited its 4.5 million customers, as required by law, through advertisements and notices in newsletters mailed to customers, he said.
When evaluating major rate hikes, the regulators hold forums around the state so the five commissioners can hear what the public thinks.
Three employees of Junior Achievement of South Florida -- Melissa Aiello, Cindy Burkett and Sennetha Desroches -- were among the 16 FPL supporters who work for nonprofits or a town that receive donations from the utility.
All three complimented FPL's service at the hearing in Fort Lauderdale. Only Aiello disclosed her employer. None of the employees mentioned that the FPL Group Foundation, the charitable arm of FPL's parent company, donated $250,000 to Junior Achievement from 2004 to 2008, according to federal tax records.
"I have always, always been pleased by the service that FPL has provided to me and to my family," Burkett said at the hearing. She is chief program officer for Junior Achievement and her brother works for FPL. She gave none of this information when she spoke at the hearing.
Burkett this month acknowledged that some have concerns about praise coming from people with ties to FPL.
"I can understand," she said. "It's kind of like a vested interest."
The Sun Sentinel analysis also found that 11 speakers have less direct ties to FPL through business and civic-group associations, such as chamber of commerce boards.
Shane Le Mar, a Fort Lauderdale business owner, didn't mention at the hearing in Plantation that he served for about a year on the Pompano Beach Chamber of Commerce board of directors with Tony Newbold, another FPL community relations manager.
"They're a good company. When the power goes out, blip, it comes back on," Le Mar said later. "That's why I felt I had to be there. I don't want to see them gut this company."
A dozen other speakers rely on FPL to keep their businesses operating. For example, several are developers who need FPL to submit design plans on time so they can meet construction schedules.
At the public hearing in West Palm Beach, Seabron Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Technology, Enterprise & Development in Delray Beach, complimented FPL. So did a business associate who used the center to start his architecture firm.
Neither mentioned the center or that an FPL company contributed to it: $425 for a recent golf tournament and $1,000 for a fundraiser.
"During a hurricane, we were one of the first communities that got our power back," Smith said later. "I know how difficult that is, so I will support them as far as what they are asking for."
Howard Berger, a Lauderhill city commissioner, and Don Maines, a former Southwest Ranches city council member, spoke about the cooperation they had received from FPL when they were city leaders.
They did not tell the Public Service Commission at the Plantation hearing that Ronald Book, one of FPL's 28 registered state lobbyists, had donated $500 to each of their political campaigns last year. Neither Berger nor Maines said they knew of Book's ties to the utility. FPL paid Book $100,000 this year and last, according to state records.
Some who showed up to speak up for FPL did so because they were asked, not because they receive any personal benefit.
Peg Buchan, assistant to the director for Port Everglades, said at the Fort Lauderdale hearing that her employer often needs FPL's cooperation.
She didn't mention that Lynn Shatas, a community relations manager for FPL, asked her to speak. Shatas was giving her information to complete the port's application for a federal grant, Buchan said.
"I was commenting on the extraordinary cooperation that FPL was giving to the port ... Lynn asked me how I would feel about repeating that to the [Public Service Commission]. I said 'sure.'
"So yes, I guess I was asked, but I sort of set myself up for it," Buchan said in an e-mail. At least two who spoke are related to FPL employees.
Willie Dublin endorsed FPL's service at the West Palm Beach hearing. What he didn't say was that Newbold is his son-in-law.
"He needed to get someone to talk," Dublin said in a phone interview shortly after the hearing.
There's nothing illegal about lining up speakers. Katrina McMurrian, a public service commissioner, said she doesn't mind if FPL encouraged supporters to attend because "we use our judgment listening to who comes to us."
But Beth Rosenson, an associate professor of political science professor at the University of Florida, said the practice can undermine the process.
"The point of a public hearing should be for citizens to voice their concerns," Rosenson said. "If one side of an issue stacks the audience, that does seem to violate the spirit and purpose."
At the least, speakers should disclose their affiliations, she said.
Jennifer O'Flannery Anderson, president and CEO of United Way of Broward County, was one of the few FPL backers who did.
She testified in Fort Lauderdale that FPL employees donate more than $250,000 to her organization each year. "I represent so many people who can't pay more," she said. "But I know that this is a good company, and I know that the need is great" for a rate increase.
Julie Patel can be reached at jpatel@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4667