Utility lawyer nears confirmation as consumer advocate

Posted May 29, 2013
Updated May 30, 2013

— The state House has approved Gov. Pat McCrory's nomination of Christopher Ayers to head the Public Staff of the North Carolina Utilities Commission, ignoring objections raised by one lawmaker about his qualifications. 

The Public Staff represents the interest of ratepayers before the Utilities Commission, representing the public's interest in the complex cases that determine how much North Carolinians pay for electricity and other utility services.

Ayers is a lawyer with Poyner Spruill, where, according to his resume, his practice has focused on "the representation of electric, water and wastewater public utilities regulated by the North Carolina Utilities Commission." He has also represented clients in cases before environmental regulators and local zoning boards.

"We also are coming out of a struggling economy and a recession for a number of years," Ayers told the House Public Utilities Committee Wednesday, hours before the House floor vote. "As we try to balance various issues, as we try to get back on track, one of the fundamental things you have to look at is utilities being competitive with neighboring states' public utility rates."

Although most of the committee received his nomination warmly, Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, questioned whether he was a good fit for the position.

Specifically, Luebke said that Ayers had never represented the public in an office such at the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division. Ayers has represented a consumer advocate in rate cases before the commission. 

Luebke also raised questions about Ayers' political involvement – he served as a campaign treasurer for Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake – and whether that would color his future actions in office. He also pointed to a opinion by the State Ethics Commission that Ayers could have a potential conflict of interest due to his work at the law firm.

"I think this is a flawed nomination," Luebke said. 

However, Luebke's concerns were rebuffed.

The statement form the State Ethics Commission says it found no "actual conflict of interest, but found potential for a conflict of interest. The potential conflict identified does not prohibit service on this entity." The potential conflicts involve work he did for former clients who may come before the Utilities Commission. 

"The State Ethics Commission finds there is not a conflict, and anything that would try to argue that there is is just not accurate,"said Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

Other representatives were more direct. Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, called Luebke's comments "groundless" and "baseless."

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, said, "I see nothing wrong from an ethics standpoint."

The House has also approved McCrory's nomination of Rep. Jerry Dockham, R-Davidson, and James Patterson, a Greensboro businessman, to serve on the commission.

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  • kheffn May 30, 2013

    Imagine that ... a Republican governor nominates a lawyer that made a living representing utilities in rate cases to head the Public Staff of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Even though this Commission is tasked with looking out for the interests of consumers over the utilities, Republicans see no conflict of interest. Sounds reasonable to me ... not.