Burns Steps Up 'Dark Money' Quest, Subpoenas APS And Pinnacle West

By Mark Brodie, Will Stone
Published: Thursday, August 25, 2016 - 3:03pm
Updated: Thursday, August 25, 2016 - 3:32pm
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Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns.

At long last, Bob Burns has made good on his threat.

On Thursday, the Arizona Corporation Commissioner subpoenaed the state’s largest power company, Arizona Public Service (APS) and its parent company Pinnacle West, demanding records of all charitable and political spending in recent years.

The move comes after Burns repeatedly asked the companies turn over that information voluntarily. At each turn, APS CEO Don Brandt has refused, primarily on the grounds of “free speech.” He also told Burns any money spent on the election would have come from shareholders, not ratepayers, so it is none of the commission's business. 

Burns wants records from both companies going back to 2011, but the focus is clear. APS is widely believed to have spent $3.2 million in "dark money" to support the campaigns of now commissioners Doug Little and Tom Forese during the 2014 election cycle. The utility neither denies nor confirms making the contributions.

RELATED: Track Arizona's 'Dark Money' Spending Tweet By Tweet

“Why else spend at such a high rate, if you’re not trying to gain undue influence?” Burns said to KJZZ on Thursday.

Burns said the utility does have the legal right — under the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision — to spend on elections.

“So the only thing left, in my mind, in order to have some transparency for the voters is to figure out some way to have them report what they are doing,” Burns said.

A recent Arizona attorney general’s opinion states that a single commissioner can force a regulated utility to disclose those records and to gather information from a public service company “regarding the degree to which it is intertwined with its affiliates.”

But Burns also believes his subpoena powers to force disclosure of political and charitable spending extends to Pinnacle West. The opinion cites a court decision that “the powers conferred upon the commission to investigate ... extend to all corporations which offer stock for sale to the public.”

Burns said that affirms he, as a single commissioner, also can compel Pinnacle West to disclose its spending.

Burns' quest to uncover the alleged dark money has not won him any allies on the commission. 

Earlier this month, the commission shot down his effort to hire an outside attorney to conduct the investigation. Chairman Doug Little accused Burns of impugning the integrity of the commission and called the probe a “fishing” expedition.

Commissioner Andy Tobin, who is running against Burns in the Tuesday primary, said Burns’ investigation is politically motivated.

"This is good fodder for the media,” Tobin said on Thursday. “He announces the hiring of his lawyer the day ballots go out and now just in time for Election Day, he says, okay how do I get on the front page this time?”

Tobin points to money spent by a pro-solar group in recent weeks on ads and robocalls for Bob Burns.

“If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is,” Tobin said.

Burns has said he would prefer the solar industry stay out of the election, too, but he has no control over that because they are independent expenditures.

"Stopping the investigation is the desire of APS, the fact that some members of the commission seem to support that, I don't understand it," Burns said.

The subpoenas give a deadline of Sept. 15 for the companies to turn over all the information requested and for Brandt to appear at the commission in October.

A spokesperson for APS said they are reviewing the subpoenas. 

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