Sunday, February 26, 2006

PGE: Can't We All Just Forget the Past?

In another episode of the continuing attempt by PGE to prop up The O's ad budget and cleanse itself of dirty Enron afteraffects, CEO Peggy Fowler stared (unconvincingly) warmly back at me this morning and declared "It's Time to Focus on PGE's Future as an Independent, Oregon Company." Since print ads don't appear in the online version of the paper, I apologize for the scan job. To read it, click on the picture and then zoom in. While the headline is appropiately focus group-ready, don't be fooled--the entire ad is a reply to Portland City Council's request to review documents that may indicate overcharging and bilking of ratepayers for several years and many millions of dollars.
It follows a public rebuke in Saturday's O of the effort led by Randy Leonard:

PGE on Friday refused to turn over a slew of internal documents sought by the city, contending Portland officials are overreaching in their inquiry into the utility's income tax and power-trading practices.

"We concluded that the city doesn't have the authority to go ahead with an investigation of this sort," said Jay Dudley, PGE's associate general counsel.

Leonard's reply? Bring it: "Obviously, they're going to have to explain themselves to a judge."

Let's walk through a little of the ad. Fowler's statements are in normal text; my comments in italics:
In October, we voluntarily [eventually, and under duress] responded to a City of Portland data request and made ourselves available to answer [obliquely] any questions about the information we provided [and no answers to any questions NOT about the information provided.] Our response was met with an alarming lack of process on the City's part [the process we were looking for was rolling over and thanking us for the non-nutritious documentary biscuit we already gave them.]

The City has now asked PGE to produce an extraordinary amount of additional information [extraordinary being anything beyond what doesn't incriminate us] for their consultants to review--information that would take PGE tens of thousands of staff hours to produce and even more for the City to review. We have decided not to respond to the second request [in roughly the same way one 'decides' not to put their hand into a pizza oven.]
The process the City seeks to undertake would duplicate the work of other government agencies [were other agencies actually making the same request as Portland, in Portland's interest]. The OPUC, several federal agencies and the courts have the authority to investigate the types of concerns raised by city commissioners [and as we all know, authority equals action!] In fact, virtually all of the City's questions have been examined and resolved by other agencies or by the courts [virtually all--except the ones revolving around whether PGE has been pocketing Portlanders' tax money.]

What's interesting with this ad is how adroitly it avoids the tone expressed by spokespeople in the Oregonian piece the day before. Here's what they sent to City Attorney Linda Meng:
PGE's Dudley said the state law cited by the city, with roots in the 1911 Public Utility Act, doesn't specifically allow municipalities to investigate utilities.

"Because the Legislature has not expressly granted cities investigatory powers regarding utilities or their rates, the city has no authority to conduct the current investigation," Dudley wrote in his letter to Portland City Attorney Linda Meng. The state law pre-empts the city charter, Dudley said.
Now look again at the three reasons given by Fowler:
1. We're really good people!
2. Other agencies really should be the ones to look at this.
3. Letting the City look at it could cost YOU money!

The only one that comes close to addressing their actual position is #2, and even that sidesteps the "authority" issue in favor of "appropriateness." When talking to the masses, clearly Fowler wants to give the impression that City Council is just off on another one of their red herrings, well-meaning but misguided. But when the rubber meets the road and a formal response is required, "inappropriate" becomes "illegal." Obviously, responding to the question "Are you ripping us off?" with "you don't have the right to ask us that" didn't test well.

We'll try to get Commissioner Leonard over here for comment if we can...