An advisory opinion, issued last Thursday by the Alabama Ethics Commission on a 3-2 vote, ruled that Public Service Commissioner, Chip Beeker, should not sign a lease with a solar energy company that hopes to sell the energy to Alabama Power Company, a utility that the PSC regulates.
Coronal Development Group, a Virginia-based solar company is actively seeking to sign lease options in the state in anticipation that Alabama Power will be seeking to request proposals for renewable energy projects.
The Ethics Commission said that PSC Commissioner Chip Beeker of Greene County should not enter a lease that could pay him up to $225,000 a year for a lease on 451 farmland acres he owns in the county. The lease would be at $500 an acre for twenty-five years. If the company leases all of his land for the 25-year period, Beeker could generate $5.6 million in income from this lease.
Coronal proposes to build a solar farm on the land, which would create jobs in construction and 6 permanent jobs to operate the facility. Coronal applied to the Greene County Industrial Development Authority for traditional tax abatement benefits for new industrial projects and was approved for these tax concessions.
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.”
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.
Chip Beeker’s statement on the conflict of interest:
In a written statement submitted to the Greene County Democrat, Chip Beeker states:
“I was originally approached by a Coronal representative who explained to me that his company was interested in leasing a particular tract of land I own because electrical transmission lines pass directly over the tract of land in question. He further explained that Coronal needs easy access to transmission lines in order to connect to the grid. As is my regular practice when confronted with potential ethical questions, I decided to seek counsel before entering into a contract for the lease of land with Coronal.
“I spoke with both the Executive Director of the PSC, who is also the PSC’s ethics compliance officer, and my chief of staff, both of whom are attorneys. Because no vote regarding Coronal was envisioned coming before the PSC at the time (and, to date, still has not come before the PSC) neither of them saw a problem with my entering into such a contract. They both, however, thought that it would be a good idea to solicit an informal opinion from the Ethics Commission. The Executive Director of the PSC sought the opinion and provided the Executive Director of the Ethics Commission with answers to each of his questions. The Executive Director of the Ethics Commission sent an informal opinion in which he concluded that, because a conflict might arise in the future, I should not enter into the contract for the lease of the tract of land.
“Because I and others thought that the informal opinion was wrongly decided, I retained the services of James Anderson, a former circuit court judge and former Executive Director of the Ethics Commission. After reviewing the facts of my case, Mr. Anderson assured me that he saw no issue, which would prevent me from entering into the contract with Coronal and agreed to represent me before the Ethics Commission.
“Prior to the initial hearing held on the matter, the Ethics Commission had the ability to fully investigate the facts regarding the offer Coronal had extended to me and to ask any questions they had about the case. The vote regarding whether I could lease my land to Coronal was split two to two; one member of the Ethics Commission was not present at that hearing.
In seeking both the informal and formal opinions from the Ethics Commission, I followed the process that elected officials should follow when they have a question regarding their conduct. The PSC does not now nor has it ever regulated Coronal. I did not solicit an offer from Coronal. Indeed, Coronal representatives have clearly stated that their offer to lease my land was completely unrelated to my service on the PSC. I have never and will never cast a vote as a member of the PSC when a conflict of interest exists. I look forward to continuing to serve you as a member of the PSC.”
In his statement, Commissioner Beeker does not address last week’s 3-2 decision by the Ethics Commission indicating that they find that a potential conflict of interest does exist, except to say that he will not cast a vote when a conflict of interest exists.
Anderson 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. Ethics 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.
Ethics 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.
The Democrat used portions of an article by Kim Chandler of the Associated Press in preparing this news story.