Ethics panel won't clear PSC member lease to solar company

An Alabama Public Service Commission member should not sign a potentially lucrative lease with a solar energy company that hopes to sell energy to a utility he regulates, a state ethics panel said Thursday.

The Alabama Ethics Commission, voting 3-2, issued an advisory opinion Thursday saying Public Service Commissioner Chip Beeker should not enter into the agreement that could pay him $225,000-a-year for a lease on land that he owns. Coronal Development Group, a Virginia-based solar company was looking to sign lease options in the state in anticipation that Alabama Power will be seeking request proposals for renewable energy projects.

Beeker's position on the state board that regulates utilities and the company's hopes of selling energy to Alabama Power create at least the "perception of a conflict of interest," the opinion stated. The Ethics Commission members say in the opinion they are not satisfied that, "Mr. Beeker's public position is irrelevant to Coronal, nor can we conclude that the lease would not present a conflict between Mr. Beeker's private interests and official responsibilities if executed."

The proposed lease, if it came to fruition, would have paid Beeker $500 an acre for 25 years. If all 451 acres were used, Beeker could make up to $5.6 million from the leases.

James Anderson, an attorney representing Beeker, said Thursday that he was disappointed in the outcome. He likened it to preventing Beeker from leasing the land to a corn farmer because the owner planned to sell ethanol.

Anderson said the company was unaware of Beeker's position when they approached him. The large pasture tract was appealing for a solar project, he said, because it is near transmission lines. He said there was no guarantee Coronal would get the power business or that the company would lease Beeker's land.

"All he was wanting is to enter into a contract that gives them an option," Anderson said.

Anderson had asked the commission to wait until October to issue the opinion so he could be there to answer questions.

The split decision came after the commission deadlocked earlier.

Commissioners voiced opposing views Thursday.

Commissioner Stewart Tankersley said there would be a conflict if Beeker had any involvement in setting parameters for alternative energy proposals.

"If he voted to set the parameters, and then he benefits from the parameters ... I see a problem," Tankersley said.

The two commissioners who voted against the opinion said there wasn't a conflict of interest yet because the project was speculative.

"I think the family can use their land any way they want to until there is a conflict," Commissioner Charles Price said.

Commission Director Tom Albritton said the opinion was based on the facts before them.

"At this point we cannot say this is OK," Albritton said.