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Indiana utility regulator criticized over job change

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Some consumer groups are criticizing an Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission member's move to a private organization that oversees the Midwestern electrical grid.

The state inspector general has cleared Kari Bennett's decision to resign from the utility commission and become senior corporate counsel the Carmel-based Midcontinent Independent System Operator, The Indianapolis Star reported (http://indy.st/1eJuu2o ).

Indiana law requires state employees to wait for a year after leaving government to take a job as a lobbyist or with an organization with whom they negotiated any contracts or made decisions that affected the new employer. The inspector general found the waiting period didn't apply to Bennett because she won't be lobbying the utility commission.

Some consumer advocates say the move raises more questions about the revolving door between utilities and regulators, especially after ethics questions were raised a few years about coziness between IURC officials and Duke Energy over a $3.3 billion generating plant project.

"Has the commission learned nothing from the ethics scandal?" said Kerwin Olson, executive director of Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana. "The revolving door continues to spin out of control."

Doug Webber, the IURC's general counsel and ethics officer, said Bennett won't lobby any state offices for the grid organization or the dozens of electric utilities it represents. Webber said he sought and received informal approval from the inspector general's office to clear Bennett to make the move, in an effort to avoid any possible ethics issues.

"This is rock solid," he said.

Webber said MISO wasn't subject to the state utility commission's jurisdiction and did not have any business relationship with the agency.

MISO is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and represents more than 40 utilities, including Duke Energy, Indianapolis Power & Light Co., Vectren and Northern Indiana Public Service Co., all of which appear before the IURC to seek approval for utility rates and projects. It also represents some citizens' groups and consumer advocates.

Bennett was appointed to the five-member commission in 2011 after then-Gov. Mitch Daniels fired David Lott Hardy as its chairman following disclosure of private meetings he had with Duke Energy executives about cost overruns at its coal-gasification power plant at Edwardsport in southwestern Indiana. Hardy also helped the agency's top attorney seek a job with Duke while helping to oversee the Edwardsport case.

Julia Vaughn, program director for Common Cause/Indiana, said the utility commission continues to suffer from credibility issues.

"It's discouraging that the IURC and the ethics commission seem to have forgotten all about the dark cloud of impropriety that continues to hang over the utility commission," she said.

Posted 11/13/2013