Sen. Murkowski, citing ‘fairness without question,’ says she cannot support Binz nomination

After expressing reservations about Ron Binz’s alleged affiliation with groups that she implied cast doubt on his integrity, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) said she would not be able to support Ron Binz’s nomination as FERC chairman.

“The roles and functions within the commission are such that they require a level of independence, a level of judiciousness, a level of temperament and a level of fairness, absolute fairness without question,” Murkowski said. “[When] we look to … [FERC] and the responsibility that we hold the commission and the commissioners and, most specifically, the chairman to, the standards absolutely must be of the highest possible.”

During the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on Sept. 17, Murkowski, ranking member of the committee, pointed to e-mails that seemed to contradict statements Binz had made to her previously in that the only team he had in place helping with his nomination was FERC’s external affairs office.  

She cited an email exchange in early July indicating that lobbyists and consultants from Cassidy and Associates, VennSquared Communications, PK strategies, the Energy Foundation and the Hewlitt Foundation, had been invited to participate in a meeting on his nomination and to review and edit materials he was submitting to the committee as part of his formal nomination packet.

“[You’ve] effectively got a team, a shadow team of lobbyists and PR experts that have been helping throughout, which again, as I suggested, I hate to think this is going to be the new normal,” she said.

In response, Binz said that he had disclosed the e-mail indicating the presence of these lobbyists and consultants to Murkowski’s chief counsel, Pat McCormick, prior to its release.

Binz said he had had contact with Michael Meehan, president and CEO of VennSquared, a public relations company, whom he eventually asked to cease communication with. He acknowledged the conference call mentioned in the e-mail; and said he had spoken with Chris Miller, who, according to media reports, is a lobbyist who used to be a staffer for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“I have hired no one, I’m paying no one,” Binz said. “I’m a solo practitioner. I don’t even have administrative support in my business, and when the nomination came up, I was glad to accept some assistance in dealing with the press.”

Binz said he had expected his nomination to be contentious, given his experience with conservative organizations in Colorado, where he was the chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission.

“I had a running battle with them for two years,” he said. “Many of the same tactics you see rolled out here were visited upon me in Colorado.”

In light of that, he said it didn’t surprise him that people had reached out to him “on a prophylactic basis.”

“That’s what they did and I have attempted to operate as independently as possible, but fully understanding the obligations impressed upon an appointee in a situation like this,” he said, adding that he would be happy to meet with her or her staff to clear up any misunderstandings. “I want to get past this with you, I don’t want this to become a problem.”

Murkowski, who questioned him at the beginning of the hearing, did not address him on the matter again until the end of the hearing, when she said she would not support his nomination. FERC’s role is to enforce rates and protect consumers, she said, alluding to statements Binz had made about utility regulation being forward-looking.

“We want to make sure the people we work for as they have an opportunity to heat their homes, run their businesses – that policies that are set don’t shut down their opportunities because the issue of cost is taken over by a different direction, whether it’s societal outcomes or the issues as they relate to reliability,” she said.

Binz earlier had fielded questions from two senators about a statement he had made prior to the hearing, that utility regulation should shift from a “backward-looking focus on costs” to a “forward-looking emphasis on values and societal outcomes.”

During the hearing, he explained this quote, which he said was taken out of context, as addressing criticism of rate base/rate of return regulation as not providing appropriate incentives to regulated companies.

“If you read the larger context, I was talking [about] new systems of regulation, loosely lumped as performance-based regulation, incentive-based regulation,” he said in response to a question posed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “You do not give up the concept of just and reasonable rates. You merely compensate players in different ways depending on their performance, and you give them business inducements to be efficient as firms.”

The record will be kept open until the close of business this week in order for Binz to answer any additional questions.

Also present for confirmation at the hearing were Elizabeth Robinson of Washington, incoming under secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, and Michael Connor of New Mexico, incoming deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

About Rosy Lum 525 Articles
Rosy Lum, Analyst for TransmissionHub, has been covering the U.S. energy industry since 2007. She began her career in energy journalism at SNL Financial, for which she established a New York news desk. She covered topics ranging from energy finance and renewable policies and incentives, to master limited partnerships and ETFs. Thereafter, she honed her energy and utility focus at the Financial Times' dealReporter, where she covered and broke oil and gas and utility mergers and acquisitions.