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March 2nd, 2021:

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

How will Biden handle judicial nominations in Texas?

Damn good question. He’s got to get better results than President Obama did.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

A potential showdown looms over Texas appointments after the White House tapped Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, to lead judicial vetting efforts that have traditionally been handled by the state’s Republican senators.

The arrangement, while not unprecedented, may foreshadow bruising partisan battles in the coming months over lifetime appointments to the bench, as well as key U.S. attorney spots.

House members have no defined role in that confirmation process, which instead works through the Senate. But there is an inherent tension in Texas these days: Democrats control the White House and Senate, while Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are stalwart conservatives.

Johnson, a 15-term lawmaker who said the White House had tasked her to work with other Texas Democrats, channeled years of Democratic complaints that the GOP has stiffed them on judicial nominations by saying there is now “some expectation from our delegation that we have input.”

“It worked very well under Sen. [Phil] Gramm and Sen. [Kay Bailey] Hutchison,” she explained, referring to the two Texas Republicans who preceded Cornyn and Cruz in the Senate. “It hasn’t worked as well under Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Cruz.”

Cornyn and Cruz have pushed back on Democrats’ criticism that they’ve slow-walked the process under Democratic presidents and pressed fast-forward under GOP ones.

But the big question now is whether President Joe Biden and other Democrats — including Sen. Dick Durbin, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — will really play hardball with the Texas Republicans by ignoring traditions designed to protect senators in the political minority.

[…]

There’s still the real potential for clashes in Texas over judicial nominations, though it could take some time for those disputes to materialize. While a new slate of U.S. attorneys will need to be dealt with relatively soon, there are currently no vacancies on the federal bench in Texas.

Much of the ongoing tension can be explained by how the status quo came about on Texas’ four district courts and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the appellate court that covers the state.

Trump — working with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate — made federal judges a centerpiece of his four years in the White House, confirming them at a far faster pace than his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans.

In Texas, Trump-appointed judges now comprise a plurality on the lower federal courts.

With a Republican in the White House and a GOP-run Senate, Cornyn and Cruz didn’t really need to seek input from Texas Democrats. Johnson, while saying she respects that the senators “are the senators,” fumed that “we didn’t even get a question or a call” over the last four years.

But the bigger Democratic complaint has centered on why Trump had so many vacancies to fill in the first place.

Democrats have long ripped Republicans for grinding judicial confirmations to a crawl after the GOP won the Senate in the latter stages of former President Barack Obama’s tenure. Trump often reveled in the vacancies he inherited, much to the chagrin of liberals in Texas and beyond.

“While we were able to find some very good judges, overall I don’t think the process worked very well,” said Christopher Kang, who oversaw the judicial nomination process under Obama. “Sens. Cornyn and Cruz were very challenging to work with, were very slow to work with.”

I’ve already discussed the US Attorney situation, which was an exercise in slow-walking in 2009-2010. I suppose it can serve as a way for Cornyn and Cruz to demonstrate that things will be different this time, but I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. I say the Senators are welcome to put forth whatever names they want to, and if they’re sufficiently qualified and suitable, they can get in the queue alongside the nominees that Rep. Johnson and others provide. Otherwise, they can sit back and vote on the nominees like any other Senator, assuming that doesn’t conflict with Sen. Cruz’s busy travel schedule.

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

Best mugshot ever

When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.