Central Maine Power has withdrawn a document containing confidential customer information that it had given to state regulators to contradict customers who spoke out publicly against their high electricity bills.

The utility withdrew the confidential filing Thursday without giving a reason, other than to say it was “part of a very complex and ongoing process” intended to balance CMP’s pending rate hike request, a state billing investigation and a class action lawsuit.

Each decision is made “on a case-by-case basis,” spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said.

The action occurred less than a week after lawyers in the pending class-action suit asked regulators to strike from the Maine Public Utilities Commission record what they claimed was a back-door attempt to discredit customers.

In filing to withdraw, the attorney for the utility’s parent company, Avangrid, said CMP had no legal objection to the customers’ request to withdraw, and said that customers included in the confidential filing could request to see their information.

But a lawyer representing customers who believe they were targeted was unmoved.

“The withdrawal is not the end,” attorney Jeffrey Russell said. “There can be serious implications when unsworn testimony and exhibits are submitted. … It can taint the process and be prejudicial. CMP poisoned the well. That can’t be undone.”

The initial confidential filing was framed as a response to an investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that showed how CMP botched the rollout of its new billing system, and misled the public. The piece also detailed complaints by customers about spikes in their bills following CMP’s introduction of its SmartCare billing system in late 2017. The story published on June 23 contained a dozen profiles of CMP customers dealing with inexplicably high electricity bills and the hardships many of them encountered.

In a cover letter with its filing, CMP said “many of the specific customer stories” in the newspaper “contain factual discrepancies when compared against CMP’s customer records.”

Kenneth Farber, Avangrid’s senior counsel, submitted the document on July 19. A lawyer representing some of those customers and others involved in the pending class-action suit against the utility challenged the filing, saying it contained confidential information about customer accounts that had not been shared with customers.

The confidential nature didn’t allow customers to respond to the company’s rebuttal, or even know which customer accounts the company was disputing, said Peter Murray, an attorney representing the customers.

He argued therefore it shouldn’t be part of the commission’s deliberations.

In his filing Thursday, Farber said CMP did not object to withdrawing the filing, and also would make available customer information contained in the July 19 document to those customers upon request.

He did, say however, that CMP reserves the right to refile all or portions of the filing as part of the company’s rebuttal testimony in the investigation.

Russell called CMP’s offer to share the contents of the confidential filing with those customers it named absurd as there is no way for any specific customers to know if they had been named.

“It is another example of questionable and troubling tactics by CMP,” Russell said.

 


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