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Published: Thursday, 4/1/2004

The price of impropriety

OHIO'S inspector general has ruled that the state's former public advocate on utility matters acted improperly by accepting gratuities from lobbyists and by destroying a $579,000 report on electric deregulation. But don't look for a severe penalty.

If past is prologue, ex-Consumers' Counsel Robert Tongren already has paid the heaviest price likely: loss of his $130,000 a year job.

Mr. Tongren resigned as utility watchdog on Nov. 5 amid an investigation of his coziness with utility lobbyists and destruction of a report that cast doubt on FirstEnergy's multibillion-dollar gain under the 1999 electric deregulation law.

The inspector general, Thomas Charles, says that Mr. Tongren failed to report some of more than $2,000 in meals and golf outings provided by utility officials, and that "alone is sufficient to demonstrate wrongful acts ..."

The other "wrongful act" cited by the inspector general was "the commission, concealment, and destruction" of a consultant's report, which Mr. Tongren consigned to the Dumpster because he apparently didn't like its conclusions.

The report asserted that FirstEnergy should be allowed to charge its customers $2.2 billion to $4 billion for nuclear power and other investments through 2005 during the transition to electric deregulation. But the document never was made public, and Mr. Tongren later gave in to FirstEnergy's claim of up to $8.8 billion.

Some consumer advocates have estimated that FirstEnergy customers in Toledo and northwest Ohio are paying $15 to $20 a month in higher electric bills because Mr. Tongren played footsie with the industry he was supposed to be watchdogging.

Whether any criminal penalty can be imposed for destruction of the report is doubtful, but the inspector general has referred his findings on the gratuities to the Ohio Ethics Commission for possible prosecution.

Unfortunately, the penalties for ethics violations are ridiculously light. For example, when Randy Fisher, former executive director of the Ohio School Facilities Commission, was found guilty last year for conflict-of-interest offenses involving multimillion-dollar unbid contracts let by his agency, he got the maximum - a $1,250 fine.

Playing fast and loose with the public trust is a serious offense and should be treated as such when wrongdoing is established. Unrealistically harsh penalties are no answer, since judges would be unlikely to impose them.

But when public officials can get away with a slap on the wrist for abusing their power, it's time to consider something a little less comfortable.



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