Ex-utilities commissioner broke the law, state says
Mark Brunswick and Tom Meersman
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Friday, September 2, 2005 

Calling the conduct involved "egregious," the Minnesota Department of Commerce on Thursday said a former member of the state's Public Utilities Commission clearly violated state ethics laws when he solicited a job from a telecommunications company while on the commission.

The actions of the former commission member, Greg Scott, and the company, Integra Telecom, are "improper and unwelcome" in the state, the department said in a written filing.

Scott's attorney and Integra officials defended their actions, saying they followed the laws.

Scott was completing his term on the commission when he resigned to take a job as a vice president for regulatory affairs for the Portland, Ore.-based telecommunications company with operations in the Twin Cities.  The commission is now investigating whether Scott and Integra violated state laws and ethical requirements.

The Commerce Department has asked the commission to determine that Scott and Integra violated the law and suggested that a separate process be established to determine an appropriate punishment.

Scott's attorney, Doug Kelley, said the Commerce Department's interpretation of the law differs from several legal experts hired by Scott and Integra.  The Commerce Department filing refers to several legal opinions about the fine points of the violation as "semantic loopholes [that] must not be permitted."

"The 'legal semantics' happens to be the law," Kelley said.  "The Department of Commerce wishes the law covered this situation, but unfortunately for them, the law does not."

Integra Telecom vice president for marketing John Nee said Thursday that he had not seen the Department of Commerce comments.  Nee said the company stands by statements made last week that it is "very concerned" about the allegations, and that it respects the authority and integrity of the PUC.

However, Nee also said that Integra did nothing wrong by talking with Scott about a potential job and did not hire him until after he had resigned.

"We've gone out of our way to make sure we were in compliance with Minnesota's laws," he said.

Scott left his job with Integra on August 23.

Case expands

The comment from the Commerce Department, which represents the public to the commission, was one new development in a case that appears to be expanding.  Earlier Thursday the five-member commission ordered its staff to ask for comments on accusations that Scott's relationship with an AT&T attorney may have been improper.

The utilities commission is likely to receive comments within the next 10 to 15 business days after drafting the request, said commission executive secretary Burl Haar.

AT&T competitor Qwest has filed papers in federal court asking that a $25.9 million PUC fine be delayed or rescinded because of what it says are suspicious communications between Scott and AT&T lawyer Mary Tribby at a time when significant decisions were being made.

The investigation of Scott and Integra created the request for an expanded probe.  Qwest officials examined the evidence in the Integra case and noticed that Scott had placed more than 100 phone calls from his government phone between July 2002 and May 2004 to the office and cell phone of Tribby, who was chief regulatory counsel for AT&T, one of Qwest's competitors.

According to Qwest's comments filed with the PUC, the phone logs and the number of e-mails between Scott and Tribby amount to "an extraordinary series of communications" that needs to be investigated.

State rules prohibit public utility commissioners from discussing pending cases privately with any companies involved in the proceeding.

Scott's attorney Kelley called Qwest's request for an investigation "a fishing expedition."

"Qwest has not presented an ounce of evidence of wrongdoing," Kelley said.  "Qwest is equating contacts with prohibited contacts.  You can have contacts as long as they are not about important matters on a pending case."

Tribby did not respond to requests for comment.

The writers are at
mbrunswick@startribune.com and meersman@startribune.com.