Ethics scandal costs Duke Energy in 2 rulings

Chris O'Malley
October 20, 2011
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

A 2010 ethics scandal involving the chief legal counsel for the state’s utility regulatory agency, who presided over cases favorable to Duke Energy Corp. in the months prior to taking a job at the utility, has come back to bite the state’s biggest electric utility.

The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission on Wednesday reversed a ruling made by former chief counsel and administrative law judge Scott Storms. It would have allowed Duke at its next rate case to seek to recover from ratepayers $12 million in costs the utility incurred during a 2009 ice storm.

Also on Wednesday, the commission dismissed a case handled by Storms in which Duke sought permission to tap ratepayers to install "smart" electric meters in central Indiana to help better regulate loads. That project was estimated to cost $22 million.

The case in which Duke sought to collect storm damage costs is most notable. It was the only Scott Storms case the commission decided to reopen for further review after the ethics scandal came to light last year.

It was the also the only proceeding involving Storms in which one of the parties — the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor — had appealed to the state Court of Appeals.

The OUCC argued that Duke’s attempts to recover the ice storm damages during a future rate case amounted to retroactive ratemaking, which is only permitted in the case of extraordinary financial events. Charlotte-based Duke reported 2010 operating earnings of $14.2 billion.

“We are pleased with the outcome. ... We think that it’s commendable that the commission reconsidered,” Anthony Swinger, spokesman for the OUCC, said of Wednesday’s IURC ruling on the storm cost case.

“It’s been our position all along that we did not believe the facts supported Duke’s request.”

Swinger said Duke is already authorized to collect $2.6 million a year from ratepayers for storm damage costs.

Two IURC commissioners, Kari Bennett and David Ziegner, dissented from the decision to reverse the storm damage case handled by Storms.

They wrote that, “upon reopening this cause, no evidence was offered concerning allegations of [Storms having] undue influence associated with the original proceeding.”

Bennett and Ziegner said the majority views the decision to reopen the case to mean that it is authorized “to reconsider and reweigh” all the evidence and reach a different outcome despite the fact that none of the resubmitted evidence is materially different than the original.

“We do not agree that such an expansive reconsideration is appropriate.”

Duke officials said late Wednesday they continue to believe that its storm damage costs were “prudently incurred” and will address the issue in its next rate case.
Although it now cannot seek to recover the $12 million in 2009 storm damage in a lump sump, per se, it is possible Duke could instead seek to increase the current $2.6 million a year it’s permitted to collect for general storm costs.

As for the other ruling Wednesday — the dismissal of Duke’s request to invest in smart grid features such as advanced metering — the spectre of the Scott Storms scandal loomed large.

The commission said Storms presided over the 2010 evidentiary hearing in the case after he accepted a job offer from Duke as an attorney for its Indiana operations.

The Indiana Ethics Commission in May said the move was in violation of state ethics laws, although Storms has appealed the ethics board’s final report in Marion County Circuit Court.

“The ethics case  … which relates directly to this cause, has resulted in and continues to cause, substantial delay in the commission’s ability to review and decide the merits of this case,” the IURC said Wednesday.

The delay means that cost estimates presented in Duke’s smart grid case may havebecome outdated.

“In addition, the commission has concerns about rendering an opinion on the current record in light of the Indiana Ethics Commission’s factual finding in its final report,” the  IURC said, adding that it is thus “not in the public interest” to decide the merits of Duke’s smart grid deployment.

Duke Energy spokesman Lew Middleton said the utility respects the commission’s decision given the passage of time. He noted that the IURC did not dismiss the case based on the merits in the smart grid proposal.

 “We will evaluate our next steps,” he said.

Kerwin Olson, interim executive director of utility watchdog group Citizens Action Coalition, said he was still trying to make sense of the IURC rulings late Wednesday.

Olson noted that the commission in these two cases made decisions that centered on orders involving Storms. Yet the commission isn’t taking into consideration Storms’ rulings involving Duke’s controversial Edwardsport coal-gasification plant, which has $530 million in cost overruns.

“I fail to understand the difference,” Olson said.

The Storms scandal proved an embarrassment for both Duke and the IURC.

Duke later fired Storms, along with Michael Reed, the head of Duke’s Plainfield-based Indiana operations.

Another casualty was IURC chief David Hardy, who Gov. Daniels fired last fall. Emails revealed Hardy knew Storms was handling Duke cases even after immersed in job discussions with the utility. They also showed Hardy making light of a routine state ethics panel hearing triggered after Storms announced his intention to seek work at Duke.

Emails also show that Hardy was chummy with Duke Energy executives to the point it may have tainted commission decisions involving Duke, including those of the controversial Edwardsport project.

This story originally ran on Oct. 19, 2011. The Indianapolis Business Journal is a sister publication of Indiana Lawyer.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.