March 15, 2017 03:21 PM
Louisiana's elected utility regulators are weighing whether to loosen their ethics rules and allow utilities to go back to wining and dining them.

The Public Service Commission delayed a debate on the proposal at its meeting Wednesday in Toledo Bend. The Advocate reports that discussion of the idea will be rescheduled for the April meeting in Baton Rouge.

The PSC adopted a ban in 2009 on accepting meals, drinks and other items from utility companies, after the agency was criticized for taking thousands of dollars in free meals from the industry it regulates.

Newly-elected Commissioner Mike Francis, R-Crowley, is asking his colleagues to reconsider the rules.

"Over the years I've been in business, the last 40 years, I've always had business lunches. We do business over lunch. It's a pretty standard procedure in the real work world," Francis said.

He told The Advocate he didn't understand "why our rules have to be the strictest in the state."

In January 2009, the PSC in a narrow 3-2 vote adopted the ethics standards prohibiting commissioners, their spouses and their staff from accepting free meals, drinks and other items from utilities.

The rules are tougher than those governing other elected officials and state lawmakers, who face a cap on how much can be spent on their wining and dining by lobbyists, rather than an outright ban.

The PSC's stricter ethics standards came after investigators at the Legislative Auditor's office wrote in reports that the practice created the impression that utility companies were able to influence commissioners by buying them meals.

The reports provoked widespread criticism of the free meals. One such report found 646 instances of firms providing food to commissioners, their staffers and spouses, for a total value of $16,277, during a four year period between 2002 and 2006.

"We had some people who did some things they shouldn't have done. I think that's why we got those rules," Francis said. "It's water under the bridge now."

PSC member Foster Campbell, the ban's chief backer, opposes changing the ethics rules.

"This is public service. You do things different when you're serving the public," said Campbell, D-Elm Grove. "When I go out to eat with Entergy or SWEPCO, we just split the bill."