Powerlink booster may have powered up too soon
Official was lobbying within 10 months of leaving the state
By Jeff Mc Donald
Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 8:14 p.m.
Hazy Meadow Ranch owners Larry Stewart and his wife, Linda Hayes, worry that the Sunrise Powerlink and water districts’ sand-mining operation will ruin El Monte Valley.
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The $1.9 billion, 119-mile Sunrise Powerlink transmission line set to cut through the Cleveland National Forest and East County had a powerful advocate in utility executive Dan Skopec.
But he may have gone into action too soon.
A document obtained by The Watchdog indicates that Skopec, a former top state official, was lobbying for the project in April 2008 — ten months after he left the state. Generally speaking, state officials are supposed to wait 12 months before lobbying on issues that were under their purview.
The Political Reform Act mandates that cooling-off period to prevent a “revolving door” between industries and their regulators.
The document was prepared by San Diego Gas & Electric in response to questions from a consumer group. It lists “SDG&E employees currently working on regulatory or community outreach relating to the Sunrise Powerlink.” Skopec, vice president for regulatory and legislative affairs for the company, was the sixth out of 21 listed.
Skopec declined to discuss his role in gaining approval for the project, but a company spokeswoman said there’s no problem.
“Dan Skopec has not violated any laws,” spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp wrote in response to questions. “He is aware of the Political Reform Act restrictions on post-government employment and has abided by those rules as an SDG&E employee.”
Before he was hired by SDG&E, Skopec was a gubernatorial liaison to environment and energy departments and was an undersecretary at the California Environmental Protection Agency. In particular, Ramp said, his SDG&E lobbying on the project was not an issue because he did not lobby anyone from his most recent post, at Cal-EPA.
SDG&E says the Powerlink is needed to ensure a reliable supply of power to a growing metropolis. But environmentalists and others worry that it will degrade the backcountry and present a fire threat. The project got its final approval this week, from U.S. Forest Service officials.
Dianne Jacob, a San Diego County supervisor and leading opponent of the Powerlink project, personally handed Attorney General Jerry Brown a letter on Wednesday seeking “an immediate and thorough investigation” of Skopec’s role in gaining project approval.
The letter asks Brown to dig into the “cozy relationship” between SDG&E, the Governor’s Office and the state utilities commission.
“I’m not drawing a conclusion,” Jacob said. “I’m only asking for an investigation of the facts, which appear to me to cross the line.
“If it’s not a violation of the law, is it ethical? Is it moral? Would the average person have the same access to the decision-makers as SDG&E officials have had?”
An aide to the governor said there was no undue influence brought to bear on utility regulators, who are appointed by the governor.
“The Governor’s Office communicates with all of the state’s commissions and boards on a regular basis to convey his position on different policies and projects, which is well within the law,” spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said. “The supervisor’s accusations are reckless and have no basis in reality.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to questions about the request for an investigation.
Skopec was named to his SDG&E job in January 2008, six months after he left the state. On Dec. 15, 2008, he met privately with Nancy Ryan, chief of staff to the president of the state Public Utilities Commission, the lead regulator for the Sunrise Powerlink project.
Three days later, the utilities commission reversed a ruling from an administrative law judge and approved the transmission line. In approving the project, the commission rejected a proposal from Commissioner Dian Grueneich to require a portion of the electricity transmitted over the power line come from renewable sources.
The SDG&E project had strong support from Schwarzenegger, who sent letters to utility commissioners ahead of the 2008 vote, urging them to permit the power line.
Ryan, the official who met with Skopec before PUC approval, has since been appointed as a PUC commissioner. According to a news release announcing her appointment early this year, commissioners are appointed to six-year terms at a salary of $128,109.