Utility regulator accused of conflict of interest

Thursday, July 13, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- A member of the Missouri Public Service Commission has been accused of a conflict of interest by having a relationship with a lobbyist for a telephone company the agency regulates.

Lin Appling, 65, is one of five members on the utility regulatory commission. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that other commissioners posted allegations on the agency's Web site linking Appling to Becky Powell, manager of government relations for CenturyTel, a phone company with offices six doors from the commission's headquarters.

The allegations were in an e-mail sent anonymously June 29 to each commissioner and the agency's other top employees. The e-mail said Appling voted on cases involving CenturyTel while he was seeing Powell.

The e-mail said it was written with the hope that Appling would resign.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Appling told the Post-Dispatch for an article published Wednesday.

Appling's assistant said he would not be in the office Wednesday, and he did not immediately return a telephone call made to his home Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Powell, 47, told the Post-Dispatch she had no comment.

As a quasi-judicial body, the commissioners are held to the same standards set for judges in the Code of Judicial Conduct of the Missouri Supreme Court.

Commissioners, who are appointed by governors, sign pledges of independence promising to report any "nonbusiness association" with policymaking employees of the utilities they regulate. State law also bars utilities from providing commissioners with gifts, entertainment "or gratuity of any kind."

Commissioner Connie Murray, a Republican, was the first commissioner to post on the Web site the allegations against Appling, a Democrat. The three other commissioners joined her on Tuesday.

Appling voted in two recent CenturyTel cases. In one case, he was the lone "no" vote in a complaint filed by FullTel, a competitor of CenturyTel's. In another case, he joined the other commissioners in a unanimous vote in favor of CenturyTel. Powell attended that meeting.

The commissioners said they posted the allegations to notify the parties in each case.

"The parties that could potentially be affected need to know," Murray said.

Murray said commissioners could not make a judgment about whether the e-mail was true or false, "but we also can't ignore it."

The Post-Dispatch said some commission members identified the probable writer of the e-mail as former employee David Woodsmall, a lawyer who now represents utilities before the commission. Until January, he had been an aide to one of the commissioners, Steve Gaw.

Gaw described Woodsmall as an honest employee who volunteered that he and Powell had been having a relationship. As an aide, Woodsmall's influence over cases was much less than that of commissioners. Still, Woodsmall agreed not to take part in any cases involving Powell's company, Gaw said.

"I thought that was important," Gaw added. "And he saw that, too. It wasn't like I had to tell him not to do it."

Woodsmall told the Post-Dispatch he could not comment.

Appling is a former Army officer who served as a deputy chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan. He then served as the state's facilities management director before being appointed to the PSC in 2004 by then-Gov. Bob Holden.

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