Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rule of Law: CMP attorney, state regulators under review

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Three prominent Maine attorneys — two who are state employees and the third who works for one of the state’s largest regulated utility companies — will appear together this week before the grievance committee of the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, the professional organization monitoring attorney conduct.

The lead attorney for Central Maine Power, Ken Farber, and two lawyers for state agencies, Joanne Steneck of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and Eric Bryant of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate (which represents consumer interests before the PUC), face allegations that they violated the rules of good attorney practice when handling a complaint before the PUC.

Bar Overseers staff say it’s “rather unusual” to have more than one attorney being considered for discipline during a single hearing, and only “rarely” in the committee’s roughly 200-case annual workload does a lawyer for a state agency appear, much less two.

The origins of this case stretch back several years — to a 2005 complaint from Levant resident Bob Bemis about CMP’s practices handling connecting electricity service to newly built homes. Steneck ran the hearing process for the PUC, in which Farber represented CMP and Bryant the OPA.

At issue before the grievance committee is whether the three attorneys communicated with some parties while excluding others, a practice called “ex parte communication” that is specifically banned in both PUC rules and separate bar rules governing attorney conduct statewide.

Bemis has alleged they did so, specifically by not sending him copies of e-mailed discussions they had, which he claims led to prearranged decisions he disagreed with as the inquiry moved along. (PUC processes are typically very slow; this one remains unresolved.)

All three attorneys have denied that they did anything wrong, and Farber’s written response to the allegations specifically notes that Bemis consented to being left out of at least one communication, on May 16, 2007.

Peter DeTroy, Bryant’s attorney, explained his client’s response — which is very similar to the others’ — by saying that it is in four parts: 1) the communications were not prohibited; 2) they had no substantive content (DeTroy suggested they might have been asking for a reminder about a meeting time, as an example); 3) anything that was substantive was only communicated after receiving permission from the parties left out; and 4) if there was anything substantive communicated without permission, it was ultimately immaterial because everyone was brought up to speed before any decisions were made.

The grievance commission will hear the case on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and will ultimately issue a ruling on whether any or all of the attorneys did anything wrong or face further sanction. There is no deadline by which they must make a decision.