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Tension mounts at PSC as internal report prompts another FDLE look

After an internal review requested by the Public Service Commission's chairwoman, the agency's inspector general has asked state law enforcement officials to consider investigating allegations that a commissioner and her aide lied about a conversation with a utility executive during a pending case.

Commissioner Lisa Edgar and her senior aide, Roberta Bass, were initially investigated and cleared by the Commission on Ethics last year after allegations that Edgar improperly used her aide to communicate with Florida Power & Light lawyer Ken Hoffman about a case before the commission in November 2008.

But when a St. Petersburg man filed a second complaint suggesting "possible perjury'' and raising doubts whether investigators checked Bass and Hoffman's recollections of the timing of the conversation against an email between them and the transcript of the meeting, the Ethics Commission re-opened the inquiry in January.

PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano then asked the agency inspector general, Steven Stolting, to do his own investigation. Stolting concluded in a Feb. 23 preliminary report, obtained Tuesday by the Herald/Times, that the PSC should wait until the Ethics Commission finished its work. He also concluded that a "review of the witness statements does not provide reasonable grounds to believe that perjury has been committed."

After Argenziano asked him to defend his conclusion, Stolting responded March 1 that ‘‘information obtained to this point has not provided an alternative explanation for the apparent inconsistencies noted in regard to the recorded witness statements'' from Edgar and Bass. "As a result it is appropriate... to provide this information for law enforcement for their consideration."

Florida Department of Law Enforcment spokeswoman Heather Smith said Tuesday the agency is reviewing the information "to determine if an inquiry would be appropriate."

Edgar said the memos between Argenziano and Stolting "clearly show [Argenziano] is predisposed to a particular action that will continue the culture of fear, intimidation and reprisal created at this public institution during her tenure...

"This is an abuse of power and a disservice to the taxpayers, the public interest, and the many dedicated staff of the PSC," Edgar said.

Edgar's lawyer Mark Herron said Stolting's memo is the product of "members of the PSC that are abusing their power to achieve a predetermined result."

He accused Argenziano of "directing the investigation'' and warned, "people are going to get sued over this."

Bass did not return a phone call.

Argenziano said she believed it was the agency's obligation to alert law enforcement if it deemed necessary but added that the FDLE will determine if there is criminal activity.

The commission has been struggling with infighting for the last year, from testy exchanges at commission meetings to allegations of unethical behavior and text messages.

Argenziano wrote two letters to Stolting after his preliminary report. On Feb. 24, she said she did not "share your confidence'' in the Ethics Commission, and  asked him to explain how he decided there was no reasonable grounds to conclude that the statements Edgar and Bass made under oath to the Ethics Commission didn't contradict the timeline of events, based on audio tapes of the meeting.

In a second letter on March 1, Argenziano asked Stolting to cite the evidence that he had to conclude that perjury hadn't occurred. She noted that Stolting showed a "reticence in responding in writing over a concern to embarrass me." But, she added, "please do not make the error of contemplating that that would dissuade me from even yet more vigorous inquiry."