Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Man To Watch: Skrmetta & Pay To Play Politics in LA

Put Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta on your guys to watch closely list—he apparently thinks there's nothing wrong with letting the companies you regulate help pay for your office and then holding a white tie soiree to retire the debt you run up winning a public office that is supposed to regulate them. All citizens should feel obliged to watch this guy but the charge is especially incumbent upon those of us here in Lafayette who now own a piece of one of those companies the PSC regulates.

Back in the old days, before AT&T (née BellSouth) drafted up the (un)Fair Competition Act a publicly-owned and operated company like LUS was not placed under the the thumb of the guys over in Baton Rouge. In fact the constitution appeared to explicitly forbid it. The assumption back then was that local people didn't need any help from the state to do right by themselves. The old Idea behind regulation, especially the regulation of what are essentially utilities, was that people who had to rely on large for-profit monopolies to provide services needed the protection of at least a state level protector. It's been a while since it was obvious to outside observers that the regulators did much to control the behavior of companies they regulated; instead it seems that the regulators too often run the show behind the scene and use the state to raise rates, "deregulate" their monopolies, or keep down any incipient competition.

It's the latter that Lafayette partisans need to worry about: the PSC is notoriously a creature of the phone company and AT&T is hard at work making sure that doesn't change. LUS, as the only company regulated under the (un)Fair Act, is sure to be the target of rules rigged up by AT&T. And Skrmetta is gonna have some big time debts to pay off.

According to New Orlean's City Business the newly elected Republican was the only candidate running in that race that accepted campaign money from the industries he was elected to regulate.

Now that he's actually elected he is apparently an even better investment. Bill Oliver, president of AT&T Louisiana makes no bones about his sponsoring a $1000 dollar a head soiree to help pay off campaign debts. ($5, 000 dollars for corporate sponsorship) Sez Oliver:
“He’s a new commissioner, he’s got a serious amount of debt and my intent is to help hold an event that would eliminate his debt,” Oliver said. “It’s legal and I’m following the guidelines of state laws.”
and

Oliver said he doesn’t think fundraisers such as his compromise relationships because they are legal. He said if citizens feel the law should be changed, they should approach the Legislature.

Silly me, here I thought that there was a whole category of things that were legal but flat out wrong. Legal or not the real question should be whether it is the right thing to do to either offer to pay of the personal debt of a man who regulates you (or to accept money from a corporation you are morally obligated to regulate).

Good government types think it stinks; PAR, a pro-business organization generally —indeed Oliver sits on the board—has advocated and continues to advocate a law to make such shenanigans illegal since it is apparent that appealing to honor and a sense of ethics is a waste of effort.

Under heavy pressure from public opinion and those obnoxious editorial writers who think that accepting favors from those you regulate is, uh, questionable the PSC recently wrote rules forbidding its members from accepting lunch favors from those they regulate. AT&T was exhibit A spending nearly 2,000 dollars on lunch for PSC members and staffers in '08. Maybe, just maybe, lunch is less serious issue than helping pay to gain the office itself....you'd think. And they talk about pay to play in Illinois.

At any rate: watch this guy. Skrmetta, Eric Skremetta. He's made it clear that he won't do the right thing unless he's closely watched. And maybe not even then. Congrats and hearty at-a-boy to City Business who shows that they have retained some sense of what justifies papers and journalism: educating the public. Theirs is a truly incisive article.


Lagniappe: In the category of guys to watch: don't forget Jindal's legislative liason: Former BellSouth head lobbyist Tommy Williams. He headed up the Gov's ethics reform. (Convincingly putting to rest the rumor that it had anything to do with stemming the corporate side of corrruption.) He was a VP at BellSouth...and had a history with Lafayette and LUS' fiber project that included a role at the PSC you might want to recall.

Update-2/11/09: Mike took a look at the ethics reports and says that AT&T and AT&T's pac contibuted $15,000 dollars to the campaign before the "soiree." That soiree was apparently meant to retire a $350,000 dollar personal loan that Skrmetta made to his own campaign. All this brings up pretty significant questions about a system in which only the wealthy can afford to run for public office but can, if they see no ethical conflicts, rely on those whose livelihoods they influence, to "generously" retire the large personal debts they acquire running for office. I cannot believe that anyone, including AT&T and Eric Skrmetta, really thinks there is no quid pro qou, no implicit pay to play in such a scenerio.

Watch these guys.

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