By Chris Bagley
RALEIGH – The man probing deep into Duke Energy Corp.’s boardroom built a career as a lawyer representing utilities before taking a pay cut to become one of the most powerful people in state government.
As chairman of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Ed Finley, 63, has primary responsibility for setting the commission’s agenda, including its ongoing investigation of Duke directors’ 10-5 vote to push out CEO Bill Johnson just two hours after he joined the company in its merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy.
Environmental activist Jim Warren says Finley’s background on the industry’s side is a potential cause for concern, particularly in a state that now hosts the nation’s largest utility company – Duke Energy.
“There have been frustrations among public-interest groups; there have been concerns,” says Warren, who leads the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network in Durham and is a frequent critic of utilities. “Any regulator in that situation has to work extra hard to remain impartial.”
Attorneys who practice before the commission describe Finley as having been the unofficial dean of the public utilities bar before Gov. Michael Easley appointed him to the commission in February 2007. All describe him as direct and deliberate, as cutting right to the key issue with carefully chosen words, a style he displayed in three days of questioning executives and directors last month.
One attorney pointed to Finley’s response to a lawyer representing Duke who asked to cross-examine Johnson on July 19: “You don’t have that right, and we’re not going to hear you on that, so sit down, please,” Finley told the attorney.
Fewer than two dozen attorneys regularly represent utilities clients before the commission. In that close-knit world, none of the half-dozen contacted for this article would speak on the record about Finley, whose commission holds significant power over their clients. Still, all profess admiration for him and describe him as fair and impartial. Most know Finley both from his years in private practice and as a commissioner.