A former state utility commissioner who is now representing a company that wants to build a wind farm on Lanai is in ethical hot water with his former colleagues.
Honolulu attorney Carlito Caliboso has two days to tell the Public Utilities Commission why he should be allowed to continue representing Castle & Cooke in its efforts to move the Lanai wind farm forward.
PUC Chair Mina Morita sent Caliboso a 14-page letter Thursday that lays out the state’s ethics laws and rules of professional conduct. It asks him to explain why his prior service to the commission doesn’t conflict with his current work in the private sector.
The letter may be a stab at rebuilding the commission’s integrity in the public eye. The PUC has been publicly criticized recently for its revolving door of employees leaving the commission to work for companies they once regulated.
Caliboso chaired the PUC from 2003 to 2011, then went to work for a firm downtown that focuses on energy law and public utilities.
When he was with the commission, he voted in favor of giving HECO a waiver from the competitive bidding process. The commission’s 2-1 vote in November 2010 let the utility negotiate an agreement with Castle & Cooke and First Wind to develop a 400-megawatt wind project on Lanai and Molokai.
Caliboso didn’t want to vote for the waiver, but the commission found it to be in the public interest given the state’s goal of ramping up its production of renewable energy.
The PUC opened up a new docket in July to review the progress of Castle & Cooke’s wind project. The commission wants to address the uncertainty created as a result of the purchase and sale of the ownership interests in Castle & Cooke, which was part of the deal with Ellison.
In her letter, Morita lists nine memos Caliboso has signed this month on behalf of Castle & Cooke and points at the state law that lets the commission at any time require any person appearing before it in a representative capacity to furnish “proof of authorization and qualification.”
Morita declined to comment Tuesday because it’s an open docket.
“This is a matter between him and the rules that govern his profession,” she said.
Caliboso also declined to comment Tuesday. He said his response to the chair’s request will explain his position.
Moving between the PUC and energy companies has been an issue the PUC has been trying to address.
On the one hand, there’s fear that former PUC workers take advantage of inside information and connections within the agency, resulting in plush contracts that keep electric rates among the nation’s highest.
On the other hand, the PUC provides a great training ground in the energy industry but has a hard time offering competitive salaries so employees leave for more lucrative jobs. Their expertise is quite a commodity too, given Hawaii’s size and location.
Morita’s letter doesn’t mention the one-year cooling off period, which Caliboso seems to have abided by, that generally guides former state employees on ethics. She quotes the statutes and rules that prohibit lawyers from representing private clients in connection with matters in which they participated personally and substantially as a public employee, unless the government agency grants special permission to do so.
Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, a nonprofit environmental and community action group, said he supports strong ethics laws and thinks they should be enforced across the board to deal with the PUC’s revolving door problem.
“It’s about integrity and building trust,” he said. “The line in the sand that the PUC draws should be both what’s legal and what will build up trust in their entity. It seems to me that uneven enforcement will lead to further distrust.”