Newly released emails fuel controversy, GOP concerns about FERC nominee

Source: Hannah Northey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 13, 2013

Republican concerns over President Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission were piqued last night following the release of emails showing that Ron Binz has received strategic help from well-connected Democratic lobbyists and a public relations firm with ties to clean energy groups.

The emails that the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic and the Independence Institute in Colorado obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from FERC showed that Binz, former chairman of Colorado’s Pubic Utilities Commission, received guidance from Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm VennSquared Communications regarding edits to the biography he was submitting to members of Congress. The emails were first reported last night in The Washington Times.

President Obama tapped Binz earlier this year to replace Jon Wellinghoff as the head of FERC, a powerful but little-known independent Washington, D.C.-based agency that oversees the electric grid and national pipeline infrastructure as well as hydroelectric projects.

Notably, Green Tech Action Fund, a San Francisco group that describes itself as a nonpartisan grant-making organization, hired VennSquared earlier this year to advocate for Binz and thwart increasing attacks from Colorado’s coal industry and free-market groups.

A spokeswoman for VennSquared yesterday reiterated that Binz was not involved in the decision to hire the firm to work on his nomination.

The emails showed a coordinated effort to help prepare Binz for the nomination fight in the Senate. Among those on the email chain were VennSquared President Michael Meehan, who has close ties to Senate Democratic leaders; lobbyists; former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Jeffrey Stephens, a senior confirmation adviser at the White House; and FERC officials.

The revelation that these Democratic insiders are coordinating strategy on the nominee’s behalf could fuel the fire of conservatives who have raised objections about Binz and his agenda.

Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said late last night that the senator had just learned about the emails.

“We just learned about the emails, they certainly raise concerns and there’s an issue to be raised with Binz,” he said.

Murkowski met with Binz earlier in the day yesterday and continues to have concerns about his nomination, Dillon said.

FERC may release additional emails revealing more about Binz’s supporters’ strategy in the next few days. Murkowski wants to make sure there is enough time to review the documents and is reserving judgment about Binz until his confirmation hearing scheduled for Sept. 17, Dillon said.

Murkowski’s concerns add to an unprecedented amount of attention for an agency not normally in the spotlight.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the energy panel, has said he has “major concerns” about Binz’s nomination but has not said whether he will formally oppose the nominee (E&E Daily, Sept. 10).

Binz’s fate is highly uncertain, even with a number of top-ranking Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, voicing support. Republicans have 10 members on the committee, and Democrats don’t have much leeway with 12. A tie would mean the nomination fails.