The Georgia Telecommunications Association, a lobbying group funded by the state’s independent telephone companies, has found a new executive director the association president believes has a big “upside.”
“We felt that he is the right person individually for this job,” GTA president Stephen Miller said. “Hands down, he did the best job in his interview, without a doubt.”
The new executive director, Adam Wise, also happens to be the son of Stan Wise, a 20-year member of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates, among other things, telecommunications.
“At some point, the question was raised,” Miller said of the family connection.
It is not the first time Stan Wise has been questioned about his son’s career path. Three years ago, Adam Wise went to work for Troutman Sanders, the law firm that represents Georgia Power before the PSC. At the time, Stan Wise said he saw no conflict, since his son worked in the firm’s Washington office on federal regulatory issues.
This new situation presented an inescapable problem, however, and Stan Wise was ready with a prepared statement.
“While I am pleased my son will be following me into some of the same industries in which I have taken interest, I recognize his new role presents a potential dilemma for me as a regulator who oversees the rates and services of many members of his trade association,” he said.
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wise, a Cobb County Republican who won his last election with two-thirds of the statewide vote, said he would recuse himself from any matters involving GTA or its 29 member companies. Moreover, Wise pledged to keep his mouth shut about GTA cases around the other four commissioners.
“I will not participate in these cases. I don’t think it is appropriate,” he said. “If I agree or disagree with them, they will not hear from me.”
Wise said he already has put his new policy into practice. Wise said he recused himself from a vote Tuesday on a rate issue involving Ringgold Telephone Company. He said his fellow commissioners are aware of the conflict and how he plans to handle it.
“I’m glad that Stan recognized that this is a conflict of interest,” said Clint Murphy, board chairman for the government watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “I hope we don’t have to stay on top of him every time that organization comes up to make sure he follows through on that.”
While Murphy appreciated Wise’s vow to stay out of his son’s business, he said it underscores the PSC’s need for clearer lines between the regulators and the industries they regulate. The commission needs a conflict of interest policy that spells out the procedures, rather than allowing commissioners to make policy on a case-by-case basis.
“They should want to remove any question of a conflict. That should be a priority for them,” he said.
PSC members are routinely criticized for taking campaign contributions from individuals connected to the industries they oversee or for the gifts of meals and travel they accept from industry lobbyists. Murphy said the commission needs a formal conflict of interest policy to restore public trust.
Wise said he is aware of the criticism, but he said the commission has a long, very public record of “very pro-business, forward-thinking positions” that have benefited Georgians over the years.
“I don’t know if (the criticisms) have merit or not. I know we all operate within the framework of the law,” he said. “I think that this commission is very deliberative and very aware of the votes we make and the impact it makes on what the ratepayers pay now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now.”
For his part, Adam Wise said he expects no preferential treatment from the PSC, despite his father’s long tenure.
“I just hope they are not too hard on me,” he said.
He said he told the search committee that his father would likely recuse himself from votes affecting the associations member companies and that the industry could not expect favorable treatment.
Wise took over as executive director on Nov. 15.
Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said problems posed by situations like that of the Wises create an unfavorable impression of the commission.
“There is every reason people should wonder if this creates an un-level playing field in telecommunications,” she said.
However, she said she has not witnessed the commissioners giving industry lawyers special access or treatment compared to others, including her own group.