Balderas cleared of ethics charges in utilities case

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Nov. 26—Three government entities have now dismissed complaints of ethics violations by Attorney General Hector Balderas in regulatory proceedings on the proposed merger between PNM Resources and Connecticut-based energy company Avangrid.

The nonprofit group New Energy Economy filed the complaint in July with the State Ethics Commission, the State Auditor's Office and the New Mexico Supreme Court's disciplinary board against Balderas and another attorney, Marcus Rael Jr.

NEE claimed Rael of Albuquerque-based Robles, Rael & Anaya used his personal influence to persuade Balderas to support the merger after Avangrid's parent firm, Iberdrola, S.A., hired Rael to promote the deal at the state Public Regulation Commission. NEE called that a conflict of interest because Rael has separately represented the Attorney General in other cases.

In addition, NEE alleged Balderas committed procurement and billing violations when hiring and paying Rael in cases unrelated to the merger.

But the Supreme Court's disciplinary board dismissed NEE's complaint this summer, along with two NEE appeals for the board to reconsider its decision.

Now the Ethics Commission has also approved a motion by Balderas to dismiss the case, based on advice from general counsel.

"Having reviewed the general counsel's recommendation, along with the relevant pleadings, I conclude that the motion should be granted," commission hearing examiner David Buchanan wrote in an order signed on Nov. 5.

And on Nov. 16, the State Auditor's Office released its annual audit of the AG, which included a review of procurement and billing practices by an independent auditor, who found no AG violations.

"We were always confident that these complaints would be fairly reviewed and found to be baseless," Balderas told the Journal. "... We've always operated with transparency, and all three complaints were dismissed."

New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi said she had "no comment" on the complaint dismissals.

If approved by the PRC, Avangrid would acquire PNM Resources and its two utility subsidiaries — Public Service Company of New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Power — in an all-cash transaction valued at $4.3 billion.

Avangrid will spend more than $300 million on customer rate relief and other economic benefits for New Mexico, thanks to lengthy negotiations with the AG and other parties in the case.

Now, 23 out of 24 parties involved support the merger. Only NEE opposes it.

And despite NEE allegations of collusion between Rael and Balderas, the AG aggressively advocated on behalf of ratepayers in negotiations, said Steve Michel of Western Resource Advocates, which supports the merger.

"I didn't see the AG pulling any punches at all in this case," Michel told the Journal.

Nevertheless, PRC Hearing Examiner Ashley Schannauer barred Rael in August from representing Iberdrola in the merger case based on NEE's allegations. And Schannauer has since recommended that commissioners reject the deal when they review it, likely next month.

But given the complaint dismissals, NEE's allegations shouldn't influence the PRC's decision, Rael said.

"There never was a conflict of interest," Rael told the Journal. "It was a blatant attempt by NEE to distract from a deal that is going to be very good for the state of New Mexico and its citizens."

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