Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman’s top energy policy adviser has taken a job with a major Indiana utility, raising more questions about the closeness of the Daniels administration and the energy companies it regulates.
Brandon Seitz, who had been director of Indiana’s Office of Energy Development, started his new job Monday as manager of regulatory affairs for the Northern Indiana Public Service Co., or NIPSCO.
In his new role, Seitz will work on NIPSCO rate issues in front of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor. The utility provides electricity and natural gas to hundreds of thousands in Northern Indiana.
Some government watchdog groups said the move raised alarms, coming on the heels of an ethics scandal involving another major utility, Duke Energy, and state utility regulators.
That scandal, which began when Duke hired the state’s top regulatory attorney while he was handling Duke cases, cost four people their jobs and led to felony indictments against the former chairman of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
Under Indiana law, state employees who want to move to private industry must wait through a 365-day “cooling-off” period if they were involved personally and substantially with issues affecting the company.
The state ethics panel ruled that Seitz’s employment with NIPSCO did not violate state law. In a six-page ruling, the panel pointed out that Seitz’s office in state government did not regulate or license any utility. The panel also said that based on information from Seitz and his agency’s ethics officer, NIPSCO’s offer of employment did not result “from information of a confidential nature.”
In addition, the panel found that Seitz did not have a financial interest in the outcome of any matter between NIPSCO and the state, and the company did not have any contracts with Seitz’s office. Nor would Seitz be working as an executive branch lobbyist, seeking to influence state government on policy, it said.
“None of the facts provided suggest that NIPSCO’s offer of employment to Mr. Seitz was extended in an attempt to influence him in his capacity as Director,” the ethics report said.
But Kerwin Olson, executive director of watchdog group Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana, said Seitz was part of a team that formulated energy policy in Indiana, and therefore should do everything to avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest.
“It seems pretty murky,” he said.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause/Indiana, said a conflict might still exist due to the energy issues involved, not just which agency Seitz worked in.
“The Ethics Commission must still be handing out waivers to the cooling-off period like Halloween candy,” she said.
As director of the Indiana Office of Energy Development, Seitz had offered advice on energy programs, services and initiatives to the administration of Gov. Mitch Daniels. The OED does not have any regulatory or licensing authority. Seitz had worked for the office since 2005.
He referred questions to NIPSCO’s public relations office. A NIPSCO spokesman, Nick Meyer, said Seitz had not worked as a state regulator, only a policy adviser.
“As a state employee, he had no role in approving our cases or filings in front of the commission,” Meyer said, adding that Seitz would be a “great addition to our team, given his unique perspective and background.”