An investigation into Arizona Commissioner Bob Stump’s phone records found that he exchanged hundreds of text messages with a utility executive at Arizona Public Service, the head of a "dark money" group with ties to APS, and two pro-utility candidates in the weeks leading up to the Arizona Corporation Commission’s primary election on August 26, 2014.

The information was uncovered by the Checks and Balances Project, a nonprofit funded by the sustainability group Renew American Prosperity and clean energy philanthropists and donors. Checks and Balances claims the text message history reveals inappropriate ties between the Arizona regulator and the state’s largest utility, as well as possible electioneering.

The two Republican candidates Stump exchanged messages with, Thomas Forese and Doug Little, went on to win the primary and the general election. Forese and Little ran against two pro-solar Republicans, Vernon Parker and Lucy Mason, who were supported by the rooftopsolaradvocacy group Tell Utilities Solar Won’t be Killed (TUSK).

Ahead of the election, Parker and Mason said they believed Arizona’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service, was donating to their opponents via the Free Enterprise Club -- a dark-money group headed by Scot Mussi. APS has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations.

Text metadata show that Stump exchanged 46 texts with Mussi between June 28, 2014 and July 26, 2014 while serving as chairman of the ACC. He also exchanged 18 texts with Thomas Forese, and 160 with Doug and Linda Little, between May and August of last year.

“The question needs to be asked, being that he received [government] reimbursement for this Verizon cell phone on which he sent and received texts, if he was coordinating funding for two pro-utility candidates, was he involved in illegal electioneering using public funds?” said Scott Peterson, executive director of the Checks and Balances Project.

Leading up to the election, Stump also exchanged 54 messages with Barbara Lockwood, APS’ general manager for regulatory policy and compliance.  

“I think overall his credibility is at stake; his texts and emails appear to show he’s working far too closely to promote the interests of monopoly utilities,” said Peterson.

Checks and Balances announced last Friday that the bipartisan group Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission has asked for Stump’s records in order to conduct its own inquiry. If an initial review of the text record raises legitimate concerns, the Commission could call for a formal investigation.

So far, the ACC has not released the content of the text message exchanges, only the metadata. Checks and Balances is still pressing for those records, which the group says would be easier to obtain if Stump had used his official email address.

These accusations of inappropriate ties between regulators and utilities come on the heels of a report from whistleblower Antonio Gill, who said that former commissioner Gary Pierce frequently met in secret with the CEO of APS. The Arizona attorney general’s office is reviewing Gill’s allegations. However, Attorney General Mark Brnovich has recused himself from the case after benefiting from utility campaign spending from APS’ parent company.

While Gill’s claims are being taken seriously, it’s worth noting that regular meetings between commissioners and utilities, as well as solar lobbyists and consumer advocates, are not unusual.

Stump responds to the allegations

Commissioner Stump noted in an e-mailed statement that members of the ACC have been communicating with a wide range of stakeholders on a variety of topics since it was established in 1912. With respect to the recent allegations, he said, “Checks and Balances, a left-wing dark money group, is cherry-picking text logs to paint an absurdly distorted picture."

For instance, in the months immediately before and after the 2014 ACC election, Stump said he sent 898 texts to an analyst at the Residential Utility Consumer Office, a ratepayer advocacy group; 70 texts to a lobbyist at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project; and 285 texts to the solar advocacy group The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC).

The commissioner said he communicates via text with scores of stakeholders, including Barbara Lockwood of APS, to reschedule meetings when his assistant isn’t available.

With respect to Doug Little and Thomas Forese, Stump said it’s no secret he was a public supporter of their campaigns and considers them to be close friends, but he did not help coordinate funds for their election. He is also a long-time friend of Scot Mussi’s, but said they did not discuss political campaigns.

“I wasn’t aware of Scot’s involvement [with Free Enterprise Club] until it hit the papers,” Stump told AZ Central. “I learned when everyone else did.”

Stump said the record likely shows he also exchanged text messages with solar advocate Court Rich, and would consider him a friend, too.

"It would be ridiculous for me to institute a moratorium on speaking to friends in the solar or political community at large simply because we were in campaign season," he said. ”I continued to be in contact with representatives of SolarCity, for example, even though TUSK (a solar advocacy group funded by SolarCity) was actively involved in the 2014 campaign for the Corporation Commission.”

At the heart of the Stump investigation is an ongoing battle in Arizona over rooftop solar policy, and whether or not solar customers are paying their fair share for using the grid.

In 2013, under Stump’s chairmanship, the ACC approved a $5 monthly fee on rooftop solar customers.

The decision was highly controversial. Pinnacle West Capital Corp., which owns APS, spent $3.7 million on advertising campaigns to change the state’s solar policies that year, according to The Arizona Republic. The solar industry spent about $436,000 on efforts to block the changes.

The $5 fee comes in well below APS’ original request for a fixed fee between $60 and $100. The utility says the higher fee is needed to cover the costs of modernizing the grid to accommodate intermittent solar resources. Earlier this year, APS proposed a compromise, asking for a $21 monthly fee.

Bob Stump isn’t the only utility regulator under scrutiny for supporting an anti-solar agenda. Earlier this year, the Checks and Balances Project launched a systemic investigation into state public utility and state corporation commissions, dubbed the Captured Regulators initiative. In addition to Stump, the group is targeting California Commissioner Mike Florio, Wisconsin Commissioner Ellen Nowak and Florida Commissioner Art Graham.

"Public utility commissions generally aren’t watched,” said Peterson. “But they have enormous influence over electricity rates and the future of rooftop solar. That’s why we’ve been putting a microscope on these people.”