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Arizona Corporation Commission In Legal Battle Over Dark Money

Attorneys for members of the Arizona Corporation Commission told a judge Tuesday he should block a bid by one of the panel's members to investigate a potential conflict of interest.

Commissioner Bob Burns is asking for an investigation into whether APS or it’s parent company Pinnacle West was the source of millions of dollars spent by "dark money'' groups to elect certain board members that later approved a $7-million-per-month rate hike. 

But lawyer David Cantelme, representing Commissioner Andy Tobin, told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Kiley there is no legal procedure for commissioners to be disqualified from hearing issues, even if they involve parties that helped them get elected. Cantelme said it's legally irrelevant even if his client and the other commissioners voted on the APS increase, meaning there's no reason to allow Burns to investigate.

Bill Richards, representing Burns, responded that it does not matter whether there is no specific law or rule on disqualification of utility regulators.

He said what Burns wants to protect is the constitutional right of "due process'' of cases being decided by impartial judges. And in this case, Richards said, the commission was acting in a quasi-judicial capacity.

In 2016 APS openly spent more than $4 million to defeat Democratic candidates, helping to ensure the election of Tobin, Boyd Dunn — and Burns himself. But Burns, who reelection bid also was aided with money from solar interests, contends APS didn't really want him but feared him less than the Democrats.

That led to the 4-1 vote by the commission last year, with Burns in opposition, approving the rate-hike deal.

If Kiley decides there is a legal procedure and evidence of conflict of interest, the board’s approval of last year’s rate hike could be void. Kiley said he will rule as soon as he can.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer from 2015 to 2019.