After spending two years getting barraged with criticism for anonymous “dark money” spending in the 2014 election, Arizona Public Service learned two years later that transparency has its benefits.
APS publicly released more than 200 pages of documents to the Corporation Commission late Friday afternoon in response to subpoenas from Commissioners Robert Burns and Boyd Dunn. The documents primarily pertain to the utility’s election spending in 2016, though some of them touch on the company’s secret campaign spending from 2014, as well.
The utility faced intense criticism in 2016 for its $4 million campaign to help elect Republicans Burns, Dunn and Andy Tobin to the commission. But that campaign, run through a committee called the Arizona Coalition for Reliable Electricity, lacked a key ingredient that fueled anti-APS fervor during the 2014 election: secrecy.
APS was widely suspected of being the source of millions spent in the 2014 Corporation Commission race on behalf of Republicans Tom Forese and Doug Little, as well as more than $700,000 spent to help Justin Pierce, the son of then-Commissioner Gary Pierce, in the Republican primary for secretary of state. In response to subpoenas from Burns, Dunn and Democratic Commissioner Sandra Kennedy, APS and parent company Pinnacle West finally disclosed in late March that they were the source of funding for that campaign in response to commission subpoenas.
A summary of political activity by the Arizona Coalition for Reliable Electricity discusses the differences the benefits of transparency. The summary notes the difference in coverage for the coalition and for Save Our AZ Solar, a $3.6 million campaign funded by SolarCity, a solar energy company that was seeking to help elect Democrats Kennedy and Bill Mundell to the commission and was facing questions alleging a lack of transparency in its campaign spending.
“In a remarkable turnabout, it was actually Save Our AZ Solar that endured negative media attention for its lack of financial disclosure and apparent advocacy of anonymous campaign spending,” the summary stated.
And in an email to others involved in the campaign, public relations consultant Matthew Benson, whose firm, Veridus, was working for the campaign, wrote that APS was benefitting from informing the media beforehand that it planned to start spending in the Corporation Commission race.
“More than anything else, I think the local media generally is so used to doing the ‘APS/dark money’ angle that they’re a little caught off guard by being informed before the money even hits the account,” Benson wrote.
The benefits of transparency in 2016 don’t appear to have convinced the company to come clean about its electioneering in 2014.
A list of talking points for APS and Pinnacle West regarding their spending asks, “Why is APS/Pinnacle West disclosing its campaign spending in 2016, whereas the utility has never acknowledged its spending during the 2014 cycle?” The answer provided by the list states that Pinnacle West is being completely transparent about engaging in constitutionally protected campaign activities. “The Arizona Coalition for Reliable Energy is a new entity, and I cannot speak to what did or did not occur during the 2014 cycle,” it says.
The APS document dump included several emails from the 2014 election. In one, Harold Pittman, then the company’s director of external communications, noted that The Arizona Republic wrote a story about an anonymously funded campaign ad against an anti-APS candidate in the Republican primary. Pittman wrote that the media was tying APS to the ads, and that the company should expect similar treatment throughout the campaign.
“Reputationally, we fight this with third party advocates, and with continued effort to amplify both our corporate citizenship and our core function of safe and reliable energy delivery,” he wrote.