The state official responsible for representing the interests of Maine utility customers wants the Public Utilities Commission to investigate Central Maine Power Co. for possible wrongdoing in connection with widespread customer complaints of artificially inflated electric bills.
Following a Portland Press Herald report based on confidential memos that show CMP knew its new billing system was rife with problems, Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins said he urged the PUC on Friday to elevate its probe into the CMP billing issue from a fact-finding inquiry to a full-blown investigation with the legal authority to punish CMP if the company is found to have violated state law.
If the PUC doesn’t do so, Hobbins said he may file his own legal complaint against CMP.
“On March 1, the PUC issued a notice of summary inquiry, but that doesn’t have the strength of an adjudicatory process,” said Hobbins, an attorney. “Right now it’s an inquiry. What I asked them … is that they elevate this to be a full investigation, and asking them to do it voluntarily without my having to file an action and do it that way.”
Many CMP customers are furious over a revelation that the company withheld information about serious technical problems with its new billing system at a time when more than 1,500 customers were complaining of inexplicably high electric bills.
“I am still convinced there is a system problem with CMP impacting us,” York resident Paul Radochia said in an email Friday. “The facts indicate very serious violations involving deliberate and fraudulent negligence. Perhaps it is time for the state attorney general to get involved?”
He said the company inflated his billed energy usage and accidentally kicked him off its autopay system, among other problems. Radochia, who uses CMP power in addition to a home solar array, had contacted the Press Herald in the past with complaints about the company.
CMP has defended itself by saying there is no evidence that problems with the billing system issues led to inaccurate customer bills. The company also said that it had publicly referenced the billing system problems before a trove of internal CMP documents were leaked this week to the Portland Press Herald by a confidential source.
But Hobbins and others say the company should have been more forthcoming about the technical problems, which stemmed from a billing system upgrade in late October.
“I think that Central Maine Power Co. made a major technical and tactical error by not getting in front of this issue from day one,” Hobbins said. “Instead of possibly working with the Public Utilities Commission and the Office of the Public Advocate, we find ourselves playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to solve the mystery.”
State Rep. Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat and co-chair of the Legislature’s energy committee, said CMP’s failure to explain the serious billing system issues is a sign of dishonesty.
“For too long, CMP has taken its captive Maine customers and regulators for fools,” said Berry, a longtime CMP critic. “Yet once again, their top management’s false claims have been exposed. Sadly, Mainers can no longer trust the company we have until now entrusted with monopoly power over our residents and our businesses.”
About 97,000 CMP customers saw their monthly bills increase by 50 percent or more in December, January or February over the same month a year earlier, according to information the power company has provided to state regulators.
Residential customers, some of whom saw their bills double or triple after an extreme cold spell and a modest increase in standard electricity rates, have flooded regulators with more than 1,000 complaints.
CMP has said that its own internal investigation has found no link between high customer bills and the problems with its new billing software. It has argued that almost a month of sub-freezing temperatures, combined with an 18 percent hike in the standard offer rate for electricity, are the likely causes.
On Friday, CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said in a written statement that as a regulated monopoly, CMP is fully accountable to the PUC for every aspect of its operations, and that being transparent and forthcoming is a key part of its day-to-day operations.
“Every customer complaint to the commission creates a separate communication between our staff and the staff of the Consumer Affairs and Safety Division, so there was early and frequent contact between us and the commission about the high bills,” Rice said. “We have been communicating customer care system issues with the MPUC’s CASD on a regular basis since at least January. When we found an issue, we immediately worked to find the root cause, fix the issue, and report it to the MPUC. So far, none of the issues we have found has had any bearing on the accuracy of metering and/or billing.”
Rice said that CMP officials did disclose the billing system issues during an April 6 press conference about the high customer bills, but that the news media failed to pick up on it.
“All of the participants noted that we had identified some system problems, but that none of these had been shown to cause higher than expected customer usage or bills,” she said. “I’m not sure why the paper did not pick up on this, but maybe it’s because the focus of the conversation was on customers’ bills and not the other system issues that did not affect bills.”
On Friday, Hobbins said the PUC has promised to discuss his request for an investigation and get back to him. Hobbins said he had been willing to give CMP the benefit of the doubt until he learned that the company had withheld relevant information from his office and the public.
“It’s too bad, because I wish Central Maine Power would have reached out to the Public Advocate’s Office (and) the Public Utilities Commission early on in the process,” he said. “Probably, the results would have been better I think. There’s a rebuilding of trust that has to occur in this process.”