By John Murawski
As the N.C. Utilities Commission’s investigation of Duke Energy enters its second week, the six political appointees who regulate the state’s electric utilities are expected to bring in outside investigators.
The complexity of Duke Energy probe is beyond the scope of the utilities commission’s routine work, which involves issuing certificates and reviewing rates of ferry operators, moving companies and utility companies.
“They don’t have expertise in investigations of corporate malfeasance,” said Robert Gruber, who directs the state’s Public Staff consumer advocacy agency. “Aggressive cross-examination is not something they are accustomed to doing.”
The last time the commission turned to outside auditors – a decade ago in a case that also involved Duke – the review took 10 months, resulted in a $25 million order against the company for fudging its books, and led to a lengthy federal probe.
The current Duke investigation is doubly complicated for its tangle of personal relationships. Many of the commissioners and utility executives came up through North Carolina’s elite ranks in business and politics, having worked together in past years, to this day maintaining professional and personal connections. The former chair of the utilities commission, Jo Anne Sanford, is now billing her hours for legal services to Duke, while the current commission chairman, Edward Finley Jr., used to practice law with Duke’s ousted chief executive, Bill Johnson.
On Thursday, Johnson will appear in Raleigh to testify about his abrupt July 2 dismissal, which took place mere hours after Duke consummated its merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy. The N.C. commission had approved the $32 billion merger just days before, on the understanding that Johnson, then chief executive at Progress, would lead the combined company.