NV Energy branding at America First Center, the Henderson Silver Knights practice facility. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current)
The public’s right to transparency from NV Energy, the state’s electricity monopoly, trumps the utility’s right to keep its contracts confidential, the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (BCP) argued Friday and Monday in hearings before the Nevada Public Utilities Commission.
As customers grapple with the high cost of summer electricity, NV Energy is attempting to increase its rates to recoup some of the costs of its $1.3 million sponsorship deals with sports teams. But the utility doesn’t want its customers to know the details of the deals – such as how many VIP tickets or parking passes the utility is receiving from the Las Vegas Raiders, Las Vegas Aviators and Henderson Silver Knights.
Testimony from David Chairez, regulatory manager of the BCP, disappeared from the Public Utilities Commission website late last month, just hours after it was posted. NV Energy demanded the testimony be removed, alleging portions of Chairez’ testimony were protected under a confidentiality agreement with the state.
“This happens to be a very sensitive topic to the company for whatever reason,” Senior Deputy AG Whitney Digesti said during a hearing Friday before PUC Commissioner Tammy Cordova on NV Energy’s motion to ban Chairez from ever testifying again before the PUC. “When you look at the law, and you look at the protective agreement, it is not clear by any means that he crossed that line, that there is confidential information that he disclosed in this matter.”
BCP attorneys argued NV Energy, using the guise of contractual secrecy, “cannot contract away confidentiality, and thereby expand public policy or expand their protections under the law.”
“We are very concerned about a ruling from the Commission that, by contracting with a public utility, confidentiality suddenly disappears,” NV Energy attorney Deborah Bone said, noting the company’s vendors are not subject to regulatory scrutiny from the PUC.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Michelle Newman asserted that because of NV Energy’s “nature as a regulated utility, it is possible that a contract may be publicly disclosed, should the commission determine to do so,” and suggested the utility notify potential vendors of the possibility in advance of executing agreements.
Newman argued that NV Energy, a monopoly, has no competition, and therefore, no economic harm can come from revealing information about its contracts. She suggested “public interest or heightened scrutiny” override contracted confidentiality clauses.
Bone of NV Energy warned “such a broad, open books policy would make it impossible for us to contract with parties,” and added the utility is “looking at different ways and different things that we may need to do moving forward if the commission is not upholding confidentiality, and the parties are not upholding confidentiality .”
PUC assistant staff counsel Georgina Daley said staff “agrees with BCP’s position because transparency is important in this process,” adding NV Energy “sometimes deems an entire response as confidential when only a portion of that response is confidential.”
“I am frankly a little disappointed that we have to be here today,” Cordova, the PUC commissioner, said Friday. “Because I do feel as though what we do is often very confusing to members of the public. And currently, certainly my neighbors here in Las Vegas are having a great deal of frustration with NV Energy.”
She encouraged the parties in the future to “find a way to work these things out in a way that doesn’t involve the commission.”
Chairez’s testimony questions NV Energy’s effort to recoup from customers some of the costs of its perk-laden sponsorship agreements with local sports teams and arenas, including what he says is all of the money it paid in 2022 to the Silver Knights and Dollar Loan Center Arena, a partnership of the City of Henderson and the Vegas Golden Knights.
The utility’s customers “should not be asked to pay for sponsorship of professional sports teams and community events,” Chairez said in the testimony, in which he asks the PUC to reject about $200,000 of $1.3 million the company spent on sponsorships in 2022. Chairez alleged the utility was using the perks for the benefit of employees and friends, not the public.
NV Energy spokeswoman Meghin Delaney says the utility is not seeking to be reimbursed for the costs of tickets and other benefits paid for by shareholders. Delaney said NV Energy is only seeking recoup costs associated with promoting the company’s PowerShift program, which critics say offers vague messages that ineffectively communicate the conservation and efficiency goals.
NV Energy is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which also owns PacifiCorp, which provides electricity to 2 million customers in six western states.
PacifiCorp’s Rocky Mountain division, which covers Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, does not advertise its Wattsmart conservation and efficiency program via sports sponsorships, the company said via email.
PacifiCorp’s coastal division for California, Oregon, and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Cordova noted that as a PUC commissioner, she has called for more transparency from NV Energy.
“We have heard you and we are trying to be more transparent,” the utility’s attorney Tim Clausen responded.
While the BCP argues NV Energy’s requested sanction against Chairez is out of keeping with the alleged violation, attorneys for NV Energy suggested the punishment sought could have been more severe, such as demanding he be terminated.
Digesti argued the punishment NV Energy seeks exceeds the severity of Chairez’ alleged offense and that barring his testimony is a “detriment to ratepayers.”
Cordova continued the hearing on the motions until Sept. 12 and scheduled evidentiary hearing, with or without Chairez, for Sept. 27.
“I think that the requests that have been made are both serious requests that frankly, require the full commission to consider them,” she said.
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