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Public Service Commission ousts another veteran staffer for 'personnel' reasons

UPDATE with Baez comment: Months after Commissioner Art Graham was named chairman of the Public Service Commission for the second time, the director of the Public Service Commission has asked for and received the resignation of one of the agency's highest ranking and longest-serving staff members, Marshall Willis.

"As you requested during our meeting this afternoon, I am hereby submitting my resignation effective April 30, 2014,'' Willis wrote in a letter last Friday to the PSC executive director, Braulio Baez, who reports to Graham and the five-member board.

"I do not fully understand the why's but I do understand that I serve at your pleasure and you have the right to do what you are doing. I have really enjoyed working at the psc, it has been like a family to me. lt is disheartening, to say the least to be asked to do this, by the very organization that I have given my all to over all these years."

Willis was director of the Division of Accounting and Finance, was known as among the hardest working on the staff, and served the commission for more than 25 years. He was reportedly two years way from his retirement under the accelerated retirement program known as DROP. 

Baez told the Herald/Times on Wednesday that the issue had nothing to do with Willis' performance on any case pending before the PSC in the last three months and he was "absolutely not" asked to fire Willis by a commissioner. 

"The Public Service Commission doesn't discuss personnel matters and it would be a disservice of a valued employee to do so,'' he said.

 

When asked if a regulated utility complained about Willis' performance, Baez said, "Not to my knowledge and not that that would have mattered."

Graham, whose reappointment confirmation is pending in the state Senate, could not be reached for comment but his chief of staff Jim Varian said he "did not participate in any decision relating to Marshall Willis...He has confidence in Braulio and holds him accountabile."

This the second time a high-ranking staff member has been ousted after Graham assumed the chairmanship. Graham was appointed to the PSC by former Gov. Charlie Crist in July 2010 and was reappointed by Governor Rick Scott for a term through January 2018. He served as commission chairman from October 2010 through January 1, 2012. Weeks after he was confirmed by the Senate for his first term, he asked for and received the resignation of the agency's previous executive director, Timothy Devlin. 

Devlin, a 35-year Public Service Commission veteran, was replaced by Baez, a former PSC commissioner who had worked for two large law firms whose clients included Florida Power & Light. Baez said Wednesday he never did legal work for FPL.

PSC staff is supposed to serve as independent advisors to commissioners, not to agree with them. 

When Devlin was fired, his personnel file included no letters of reprimand and Graham would not comment on his reasoning. Devlin had angered the utility companies when he asked them to report how many former PSC employees they had hired and how much they were paying them. The goal was to determine whether there was an indirect cost to customers when utilities are able to buy access and insight into regulators. The utilities successfully fended off the request and haven't reported the information.

report released on Monday by Integrity Florida concludes that the state's four largest electric companies lure former regulators and public officials with jobs, contribute campaign contributions and hire throngs of lobbyists -- paid for with ratepayer money -- to influence the Florida Legislative agenda to advantage its shareholders, not necessarily its customers. 

The report notes, for example, that after FPL lost its a $1.3 billion rate increase request in 2009, FPL contributed millions in contributions to state level campaigns; lawmakers replaced four of the five commissioners, and FPL returned with a rate increase request which the commission approved in 2013. Between 2004 and 2012, the four companies contributed more than $18 million to state level campaigns.

They also spent $12.5 million on lobbying during that time and FPL alone has hired at least 18 former state officials or PSC staff to work directly for the company or as consultants. 

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