AP NEWS

Public Utility Commission Acted Correctly

October 2, 2018

The state Public Utility Commission sometimes relegates consumers to second place. But it deserves great credit for its actions against a group of power distributors that vastly over-charged consumers amid record-low temperatures caused by the infamous “polar vortex” event of 2014. The PUC issued a record fine of $1.84 million against one of those companies, HIKO Energy, and ordered it to refund $2 million to customers. HIKO had guaranteed rates for six months, but increased those rates by 300 percent for 5,700 customers during the polar vortex period. Several other companies that had been cited by the PUC acknowledged the overcharges and negotiated settlements, but HIKO decided to appeal its fine and lost in the Commonwealth Court. It appealed again to the state Supreme Court, where it made a curious argument. The company’s lawyer argued that “everybody did it,” but HIKO was punished for defending its conduct rather than settling. That it was part of what HIKO itself claimed was an “industrywide phenomenon” is a curious defense against the PUC enforcement. Several justices seemed dubious about that defense during the Sept. 26 argument. Justice David Wecht, for example, compared the situation to criminal court, where one defendant might negotiate for a lower sentence while admitting guilt, compared to another defendant charged with the same crime who is found guilty after a trial. The PUC argued that HIKO’s case was distinct because the company, unlike others that were fined, offered a fixed rate rather than variable rates. Thus, it had no room to escalate the rate above its own cap. “If you say you’re going to charge 5 cents, then you have to charge 5 cents,” PUC lawyer Patty Lee said. And Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, in that court’s decision upholding the fine, wrote: “... HIKO’s highest-level executives made the decision to intentially overcharge approximatelyh 5,708 customers on nearly 15,000 invoices in a manner contrary to the language of its welcome letter and disclosure statement. ... The intentional misconduct by HIKO’s top management, combined with the sheer magnitude of the violations, separates this case.” This is a case in which the PUC acted correctly in behalf of wronged consumers. It must retain the ability to act aggressively against such obvious violations.

AP RADIO
Update hourly