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Dark Money Drama Is Playing Out At The Arizona Corporation Commission Ahead Of Primary

Arizona Corporation Commission
(Photo via azcc.gov)
Arizona Corporation Commission

This year’s race for Arizona’s public utilities commission might as well be called the "dark money drama."

Controversy has rocked the commission, much of it centered on the influence of outside actors like the state’s utilities and the rooftop solar industry. There are seven candidates running for three seats this year— two are Democrats— so there will only be one primary.

“This cloud has been hanging over this commission,” Commissioner Bob Burns said at recent Arizona PBS debate. “It all starts with $3.2 million perceived to have been spent by a regulated utility to get people on the commission."

Arizona Public Service (APS) is widely believed to have made so-called “dark money” contributionsto support the 2014 campaigns of Commissioners Tom Forese and Doug Little. It’s become the central question of this campaign season, and the cause célèbre of Burns, who is running for re-election.

As a commissioner, Burns has repeatedly asked APS and its parent company Pinnacle West to disclose its political spending. So far the company’s CEO has refused. Now Burns plans to subpoena them.

So where do the four other candidates in the GOP primary stand on this issue?

“You can call it dark money or you can call it free speech,” State Representative Rick Gray said at that debate, citing the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on corporate spending.

“If a company has private profits, it is up to them as far as I’m concerned where to spend it,” he said.

He said a company should not have to disclose that information, either. Gray is not alone in his convictions. Former state senator and ally Al Melvin has said the same and criticized Burns for insinuating that two current commissioners are in the pocket of APS.

“I think we do have regulatory capture, but it’s the solar industry and him (Burns),” Melvin said.

Indeed, the group Save Our AZ Solar, which received money from a Solar City-backed group, has openly supported Burns with robocalls and ads, saying “Burns is working to protect Arizona families against big electric companies and special interests.”

In response, Burns has said he’d prefer the solar industry stay out of the election but ultimately, because these are independent expenditures, he has no control.

Current commissioner Andy Tobin is the third member of the Melvin-Gray-Tobin team. Tobin, the former speaker of the state house, was appointed this year. He and other commissioners recently suspended Burns’ APS probe, saying the attorney chosen had questionable ties to the solar industry.

“Go file your subpoena, Bob. I’ve said that ten times, go file it,” Tobin said during the August meeting. “I’m not stopping you.”

Tobin also posed this question to Burns: “I’m trying to figure out— is it just because Pinnacle West isn’t reporting? Or (Burns) doesn’t want the money spent?”

Tobin has repeatedly lamented that this issue has “owned” the campaign conversation.

Burns has asked all regulated utilities to voluntarily refrain from spending in elections. APS has refused to do that.

The final candidate— former Superior Court Judge Boyd Dunn— also does not believe APS should have to disclose, although he is less outspoken than the other candidates.

“These allegations are being made before the dais, on the dais, between the members and things of that sort, without any basis whatsoever other than the principle itself,” Dunn said.

The Corporation Commission’s powers are extensive and unique. It’s a quasi-judicial agency responsible for everything from your water and power bills, to securities, to the future of renewable energy in Arizona.

As scandal has plagued the commission, like resignations over conflicts of interest, fights over rooftop solar and even an FBI probeinto the last election, the GOP primary has become a kind of litmus test: how will these candidates restore the public’s trust?

It’s also drawn fault lines in the conservative ranks as evidenced in a recent exchange between Melvin and Burns during this month’s debate.

“We’ve got two Democrats running for these three seats who really like what they are hearing from Bob. It’s like a three man team against the four of us,” Melvin said.

To which former state Senate President Burns replied: “Here’s the A-team. APS team. These guys are on APS’ side.”

The top three candidates in Tuesday's Primary will advance to the general election where voters will decide who they want on their team. 

Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.