The state Supreme Court ruled today that a former utilities regulator who later applied for a job on the project he approved does not need to turn over his phone records.
The case centers around Mike Huebsch, who served on the Public Service Commission in 2019, and helped to approve the construction of the Cardinal Hickory Creek line
But Huebsch later applied for a job with one of the companies building the Cardinal Hickory Creek power line, and has admitted that he has had over 300 private conversations with WE Energies officials. Huebsch has stated that those conversations were just friendly talks between friends. Critics fighting the project, though, maintain that there could be something more to those private conversations.
Today, the state Supreme Court ruled that Huebsch does not need to turn over his phone records.
The ruling overturns a decision by a Dane County judge last year, who ordered Huebsch to turn over all private conversations between himself and the private business groups constructing the line.
The 102 mile long power line would run from Dane County into the state of Iowa. In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the line could not cross the Mississippi river, effectively blocking the project from completion. Regardless, the American Transmission Company, or ATC, are still constructing the line in both Wisconsin and Iowa.
Jennifer Filipiak is the Executive Director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, a group that protects natural areas in Wisconsin, and has been fighting the power lines construction since 2019. Filipiak says that the 300 phone calls could have influenced Huebsch’s decision.
“We are looking for bias, this is someone who sits on the Public Service Commission and makes big decisions on ratepayer’s dollars are going to be spent, how we are going to energize our future, you could say. If you have hundreds of secret calls and texts with people who really want this project to pass Public Service Commission review, it tanks the process, and undermines public trust in the process,” Filipiak says.
The court, which ruled 4-3 along party lines today, says that conservation groups did not provide enough evidence that Huebsch was biased in his decision. Judge Brian Hagedorn, writing a concurring opinion, called the accusations quote “meritless and borderline frivolous,” end quote.
Filipiak says that the 300 private phone calls is more than enough evidence.
“300 phone calls in a year, if you think about the most important people in your life, for me that’s my mother, I don’t talk with my mom almost every day of the year on my phone! So to put it in context, this is a lot. This is endless calls, lunches, dinners, golf outings, and 300 calls with one individual is just one part of it. To say that there is nothing suspicious there, that it’s not worthy of digging into and putting commissioner Huebsch on the stand, it really boggles the mind,” Filipiak says.
Ultimately, the court ruled that regulators and other public officials should be presumed impartial in all decision making, and that they are able to set aside personal relationships when deciding a case.
Ryan Walsh, Huebsch’s attorney in the case, says that he is beyond happy about the ruling.
“For two years, no court has adopted our view, the correct view, that there are no real claims of bias here, only innuendo and speculation. The court made clear that any time you want to target a judge or an adjudicator, you need actual evidence of wrongdoing,” Walsh says.
Matt Sweeney with the Public Service Commission also applauded today’s decision, saying that it reaffirms the integrity of the commission and protects public officials against frivolous and unfounded claims of bias.
Today’s ruling did not rule on the merits of the overall case challenging the line, and only ruled that Huebsch does not have to turn over private phone records.
The case determining the fate of the power line will go before the US Court of Appeals on September 28.
Photo courtesy: Fre Sonneveld / UNSPLASH