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FDLE probes Public Service Commission

The state's top law enforcement agency is investigating the Public Service Commission on grounds that commissioners and staff may have had improper relationships with the utilities they regulate.

   Two PSC commissioners and its executive director said Tuesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has launched an investigation based on a complaint, and is preparing to conduct interviews of all five commissioners and some of their staff.

   Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs is assisting in the investigation, sources said.

   "I've been advised by our executive director that FDLE will be conducting interviews," said Commissioner Nathan Skop. He would not comment or speculate on the nature of the investigation.

    Commissioner Nancy Argenziano said she was told by PSC Executive Director Mary Andrews Bane that "FDLE was coming to conduct interviews and it was supposed to occur [Tuesday]."

   Argenzino said the interviews were delayed when two staff members, William Garner and Roberta Bass, sought to hire attorneys before the interviews. Garner and Bass could not be reached for comment.

   "It was my understanding that FDLE would be conducting interviews of everybody," she said.

Commissioners Lisa Edgar, Katrina McMurrian and Matthew Carter could not be reached for comment.

   The FDLE probe comes as the PSC, which regulates utilities and their rates, is conducting hearings on a request by Florida Power & Light to raise its base rates 30 percent beginning next year in what would be the largest such increase in 20 years.

    While the complaint is not a public record, one source believes the investigation is a broad probe into the PSC's relationships with utilities. Another source familiar with the investigation indicated it was connected to PSC lobbyist Ryder Rudd.

   On Aug. 24, the first day of the FPL rate hearing, commissioners postponed deliberations and ordered an internal investigation into whether Rudd, the staff's chief lobbyist, had violated PSC ethics rules when he attended a Kentucky Derby Party at the Palm Beach Gardens home of an FPL executive, Ed Tancer.

Rudd denied wrongdoing, but Skop said the meeting was inappropriate and has demanded Rudd's ouster. Rudd was removed from all FPL business, pending the outcome of an internal inquiry.

   PSC rules forbid staffers and commissioners from discussing certain types of commission business with those who appear before the regulatory panel. Under state law, a commissioner who engages in such discussions -- called "ex parte communication'' -- and who fails to report them could face a $5,000 fine and even removal from office. State law says the ethics commission should investigate such cases.

   FPL said through a spokesperson that the utility was unaware of any investigation.

   "We defer to the Commission regarding its employees and their conduct. Under no circumstances does Florida Power & Light attempt to inappropriately influence anyone," FPL said in a written statement.

FDLE said the investigation was prompted by a complaint.

    "At this time it doesn't appear to rise to the level of a criminal issue. We're still seeking information to make a final determination on the next steps to take," Heather Smith, FDLE spokeswoman.

    Asked if the investigation was routine, Smith said the agency always takes a thorough look at "anything and everything'' associated with a complaint.

Bane, executive director of the PSC, said that she was notified of the investigation by the PSC's inspector general.

   "They needed some office space to conduct some interviews," Bane said. "I know absolutely nothing about it."

    An FPL critic, Sen. Mike Fasano, said he had heard of the inquiry, and it troubled him. "Anytime FDLE is investigating a state agency, it concerns me," Fasano said. "A lot of people  are hiring lawyers. That's making the lawyers of Tallahassee happy."

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