FACT CHECK: Dark money floods normally low-profile Corporation Commission race

A LOW-PROFILE RACE

A normally low-profile race has taken center stage thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money being funneled into ads for and against candidates Vernon Parker, Doug Little and Tom Forese.

There are two seats open on the Arizona Corporation Commission and four Republicans battling it out to take them.

On one side of the Republican primary race is Vernon Parker, who is campaigning with Lucy Mason. On the other side, Doug Little and Tom Forese campaign together.

Jim Holway and Sandra Kennedy are running on the Democratic ticket.

Two candidates from each party will be elected in the primary and go on to compete for the two open spots in the general election.

The Corporation Commission is the state agency that regulates power and water in Arizona – mainly the largest utility company in the state, Arizona Public Service (APS).

Five elected commissioners hear rate cases and decide how much you pay for utilities.

Several ‘dark money’ groups have gotten involved in the race, most notably a non-profit called, Save Our Future Now. The group has spent more the $1.3 million in various Arizona races to date, according to the Secretary of State's Office campaign filings.

More than $830,000 of that money has been spent fighting against Vernon Parker in the Corporation Commission primary race.

In their most recent ad, the group attacks Parker on behalf of the “real conservatives” in the race, Tom Forese and Doug Little.

“Who do you want on the Corporation Commission?” the ads narrator asks, “Ethically challenged Vernon Parker?”

The ad goes on to describe an investigation into Parker by the Small Business Association (SBA) in 2008. The SBA claimed Parker applied for a loan from the administration while he was still a federal employee, which is against the rules.

Parker appealed and lost. In the end, the SBA dismissed several other allegations against him.

Parker adamantly denies any wrongdoing in this case. In a statement, he told ABC15, “Please understand that it was I who brought action against the SBA, because of their poor investigation and allegations that were proven to be false.”

Parker said he fought back against the government so the same thing wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

SOLAR CHALLENGE

Solar groups are backing Parker and Mason in the race. Parker has received more than $140,000 in positive campaigning from a non-profit called, T.U.S.K. or Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed.

But, he told ABC15 he has asked all groups – including the rooftop solar industry – to stay out of the race.

Save Our Future Now has spent more than $425,000 combined in support of Little and Forese, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

And, because of their nonprofit 501(c)(4) status, they’re not required to report the names of who donated.

Many people, including Parker, speculate the money is coming from APS.

Parker told us the agency is trying to hand-pick the commissioners who will ultimately regulate them.

See Parker’s full Q&A below.

When we asked them about it, APS didn’t confirm that they gave money to Save Our Future Now, but they did defend their right to get involved in the election.

APS blamed T.U.S.K. and other “wealthy California companies” for “injecting politics into the regulatory arena."

“It would be irresponsible for us not to defend our company,” APS said in a statement. “No one disputes our right to participate in the political process, although some have voiced the opinion we should not exercise that right.”

See APS’s complete statement below.

Both Little and Forese said they have no idea why this group is supporting their campaigns – and they don’t know who is funding them.

“We can only speculate that, like hundreds of thousands of voters in Arizona, there may be some groups that believe that Tom Forese and Doug Little are the most qualified and best candidates to represent the ratepayers on the Arizona Corporation Commission,” the Little and Forese campaigns said in a statement.

Their campaigns also pointed out that there has been a lot of dark money spent in opposition to their campaigns, as well.

See full statement from the Little and Forese campaigns below.

T.U.S.K. has spent more than $240,000 against Doug Little’s campaign, according to filings with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

No money has been spent against Forese’s campaign, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

In all, nearly $900,000 has been spent against Parker’s campaign by Save Our Future Now and another non-profit called the Arizona Free Enterprise Club.

In the original version of this story, it was incorrectly stated that Salt River Project (SRP) is also regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC). SRP is not regulated by the ACC.

 

APS Statement:

Although we typically do not comment on individual contributions, we routinely support public officials, candidates and causes that are pro-business and supportive of a sustainable energy future for Arizona, regardless of party affiliation.

TUSK, TASC and the wealthy California companies that fund it have orchestrated a non-stop propaganda war for the last 18 months, distorting our record and attempting to disrupt our relationships with customers, regulators, investors and employees. They have misrepresented important Arizona energy issues to further the narrow financial interests of their clients.  And now they’ve thrown their support and rhetoric behind candidates for the ACC. 

It would be irresponsible for us not to defend our company, which plays a critical role powering Arizona’s economy and supporting our communities.  No one disputes our right to participate in the political process, although some have voiced the opinion we should not exercise that right.  Meanwhile, the toxic work of TUSK/TASC injecting politics into the regulatory arena goes along with no scrutiny.

In the end, we will continue to work productively and in good faith with any ACC commissioners elected by the citizens of our state.  We have faithfully and reliably served Arizona for more than 125 years. That will not change.

 

Statement from the campaigns of Doug Little and Tom Forese:

In answer to your questions, we have no idea why there are groups supporting our campaign. We do not know who is funding these efforts and we have no idea what their message will be until it is actually published to the public and we have no control or input as to what the message will be.  We can only speculate that, like hundreds of thousands of voters in Arizona, there may be some groups that believe that Tom Forese and Doug Little are the most qualified and best candidates to represent the ratepayers on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

It is clear and without question that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been poured into this election on behalf of Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason and in opposition to Tom Forese and Doug Little.  The voters of Arizona do not know where that money has actually come from.  The “paid for by” is often T.U.S.K. (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed) and/or T.A.S.C. (The Alliance for Solar Choice – a wholly owned subsidiary of Solar City – although others are part of the Alliance).  These two organizations are typically the ones identified as paying for these Independent Expenditures, however, they have reported receiving less than a thousand dollars of income and it appears that they may not be registered in Arizona to make these types of expenditures.  The fact is we don’t know who is really funding these campaign materials for Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason and in opposition to Tom Forese and Doug Little.

In other words, the voters of Arizona do not know the real source of money that is supporting Vernon and Lucy and that has portrayed Tom and Doug in a very dishonest and negative light.   We don’t know whether or not APS has actually put any money into this election for Tom and Doug and in opposition to Vernon and Lucy as has been so widely reported, just as we do not know who is actually paying for the Vernon and Lucy materials.  If the money that has been used to support Vernon and Lucy and oppose Tom and Doug is actually coming from out of state power companies such as Solar City and/or other solar power companies and organizations – the question surely must arise, are they using ratepayer money or money that comes from taxpayer subsidies to fund their political activities?  We don’t know - and unfortunately the media seems to have no interest in questioning or reporting the possibility of “Dark Money” or other power companies who may have spent money in this election in support of Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason and in opposition Tom Forese and Doug Little.  It is important to note, that the decisions made by the Corporation Commission can bring millions of dollars to these out of state solar power companies and these companies meet regularly with Corporation Commissioners in an effort to influence their votes.

While I can’t tell you why groups are spending money in this election, I can tell you what Tom Forese and Doug Little stand for in their campaign and what they have said during this election.  Tom and Doug sincerely believe that a broad and diverse energy portfolio is the best way to provide the people of Arizona with clean, reliable energy at the lowest possible price. They believe that high energy prices are bad for the people of Arizona and have the potential to cause many problems, including the loss of jobs.  They both support the use of solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, clean coal, thermal, and variety of other forms of energy generation.

It is important for the voters of Arizona to understand that Tom Forese and Doug Little are committed to protecting ratepayers, not special interest groups, lobbyists or power companies – regardless of who they are and regardless of whether or not they are spending money in this election.  Tom and Doug are not anti-solar and they are not pro-APS.  They are pro-Arizona ratepayers and they take seriously their obligation and duty to represent the people of Arizona in a fair and honest manner as Commissioners serving on the Arizona Corporation Commission.

It is unfortunate that there is an appearance that some in the media have taken sides and are not reporting the non-disclosure and/or the source of money and/or the amount of money being spent for Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason and the spending in opposition of Tom Forese and Doug Little.  We are hopeful that if you are reporting about spending in Corporation Commission race you will not be one-sided, please report spending on both sides.  For example you ask “We found this non-profit has, so far, spent about $226,000 in support of your campaigns.”  your question clearly identifies the problem – the Independent Expenditures that seem supportive of Tom Forese and Doug Little – which Tom and Doug have no control or knowledge of – have at least been reported.  We don’t see that same transparency for those who are spending for Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason and opposing Tom Forese and Doug Little.

 

Q&A with Vernon Parker –

This ad refers to Mr. Parker as “ethically challenged” because of an investigation into his activities by the

Small Business Association. We found Mr. Parker lost his appeal to the SBA, which claimed he was still a

federal employee when he applied for a loan for disadvantaged businesses. What does this instance say

about Mr. Parker’s ethics?

 I was an independent contractor not an employee. No one at the Department of Agriculture believed I

was still an employee when I applied for my small business status (see attached sworn statement).  Please

understand that it was I who brought action against the SBA, because of their poor investigation and

allegations that were proven to be false.   I poured all of my recourses into fighting the government,

because I did not want what happened to me to happen to others.  Former Arizona U.S. Attorney Paul

Charlton so believed in my case against the government that he took the case on a pro bono basis.  I have

attached a recent statement by Mr. Charlton.  I believe it says a lot about my ethics to stand up against

the federal government.  I will take that same fight and determination to the Corporation Commission to

protect our State’s ratepayers. 

 

So far, Save Our Future Now has put about $730,000 into opposition ads against Mr. Parker. What does your

campaign think is the motivation behind these attacks?

I opposed a tax on seniors, schools, churches, and nonprofits who currently have rooftop Solar.  This

 would have been a retroactive tax.   This tax was not passed by the Legislature or signed by the Governor. 

It was lobbied for by APS, and was implemented by an unelected official at the Revenue Department.  As

evidenced, (see attached letter). The president of APS, Don Brandt, sent out a Blog to all APS employees,

telling them not to vote for me.  APS is afraid that I will put our State’s ratepayer first, not their profits.  

The bottom line is that APS wants to hand pick those who will regulate them.  They are a regulated

monopoly  in our state, no competition, and should not be able to buy the election to determine who will

regulate them.  Finally, I am an APS subscriber, as such, I have no choice as to who provides my utility

services.  I am one of their ratepayers, and they are using my own money to campaign against me.   

 

We found Mr. Parker’s campaign has received more than $100,000 in support from a nonprofit group called

TUSK, or Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed. How does the solar rooftop industry play a role in this campaign

for Mr. Parker?

The rooftop solar industry does not play an official role in the Parker campaign.  I have asked ALL parties,

 including rooftop solar to STAY OUT of the race.  To date, only one other candidate in this race, Lucy

Mason has made a similar request.  Even so there is a distinction.  Solar is not a regulated monopoly and

unlike Forese and Little, we have not received any assistance from Dark Money. Mr. Forese and Mr. Little

have not spoken out against Dark Money, because they are the recipients of what is widely believed to be

 APS money.   If elected, I will owe nothing to any special interest groups, and will put the Arizona

ratepayers first. 

 

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