SCC: “Independence, Honesty, Commitment to Law”

FERC Commissioner Mark Christie of Virginia. Virginia’s loss, the nation’s gain.

On Monday, Mark Christie took the oath of office to become a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and simultaneously vacated his seat on the Virginia State Corporation Commission. He did it sitting in one of the SCC courtrooms downtown.  The following is an excerpt from remarks (in full here) he made from the bench before U.S. Fourth Circuit Court Judge Steve Agee administered the oath to join FERC.

The reason I have so enjoyed this Commission, and am so sad to leave, is our culture. The culture of the SCC consists of the following three primary elements:

Independence – I was asked at my Senate hearing if I would respect the independence of FERC. I said absolutely, because I have spent 17 years respecting and defending the independence of the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Like FERC, the Va. SCC respects — but does not work for — the executive branch, we are independent, and our job is to defend the public interest, not enact the policy agendas of any Governor or any single member of the legislature.

And because we’re independent we hire professionals without regard to politics and we then we let our staff be professionals. We never tell them to make findings or take positions in cases to serve some political or special-interest agenda.

And because we’re independent, we’re non-partisan. As a corollary to professionalism, I said at my Senate hearing the SCC is not bipartisan, it is non-partisan, and that is a major difference. At the SCC we check partisan affiliations at the door.

Commitment to law. Even though we’re independent, we are committed to following the laws enacted by those elected by the voters (even when we might think those laws are, to put it charitably, not a great idea). But every administrative agency has to follow the law whether we like that law or not

The third element is what I love most about this Commission. That is that we have a culture of honesty, of telling the truth. And that’s not just an empty cliché. George Orwell is credited with saying, “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” And by Orwell’s standard, this Commission has been revolutionary while following the law (which some would say is a paradox, but not for this Commission).

Orwell was writing well over a half-century ago, but the roots of the flight from truth go back even further. Nietzsche argued just before the dawn of the 20th century that truth was just a subjective construct and every person constructs his own truth. Well, Nietzsche was not a trial lawyer (or a judge) and I don’t know whether he knew the difference between a fact witness and an expert witness, but facts are not subjective constructs made up by each person. Facts are provable. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said on the Senate floor, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.”

And here at this Commission, for the past 17 years we have been dedicated to putting out the facts without fear or favor. I have repeatedly said to our SCC staff that while the General Assembly can pass laws that dictate the outcome of cases, it can never take away our willingness to tell the truth about the real costs and real impacts of laws on those Virginians who have to pay the bills, the residential consumers, the businesses, small and large, and on the impact on Virginia’s economy as a whole, which means jobs. And here at the Virginia SCC we have told the truth consistently:

  • In every order.
  • In every report to the General Assembly and Governor, without regard to which party was in control, we have told the truth about the real costs of laws and policies to consumers and Virginia’s economy.
  • In testimony to GA committees when they were considering legislation, we directed our staff to give the unvarnished truth about what that proposed legislation would cost consumers and how it would impact our economy. And we told them to tell the truth without regard to whether the truth contradicted the narratives being pushed by the special interests.

So, for 17 years we have put out the facts – we have told the truths based on those facts — and more than anything I am proud of that.

Ken Schrad, our director of public information, had a great line, and I wish it were mine, but I can’t plagiarize.

So here is Ken’s line: “When you come to the Va. SCC, you better bring facts, not press releases” – and I would add, not political or ideological narratives, and not so-called studies that through an amazing coincidence always seem to line up exactly with the monetary interests of the groups who paid for the studies.

And I fervently hope – not only as a soon-to-be former SCC commissioner, but as a citizen of Virginia — that long after I’ve gone, this Commission will continue to be both independent and honest in its defense of the public interest.

It is our hope, as well, Commissioner. We’ll let you know how it works out.

Christie, who I have known for almost 40 years, will serve FERC fearlessly. His bio outline is here. For the off-the-record version, buy me drinks. I’ve known Judge Agee about the same length of time. This is a day for me to reflect on those two spectacular public servants, and the many others who made me proud to serve as spear holder to so many GOP elected and appointed officials. 

— Steve Haner

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27 responses to “SCC: “Independence, Honesty, Commitment to Law”

  1. Nice piece, Steve. Even inspirational. Looking forward to buying you a drink.

  2. For all the ranting about Dominion’s influence in Virginia, hearing about the SCC and FERC “professionalism” is rich! Non-partisan, maybe, but certainly pro-cronyism. All you have to do is ask the folks at SML what they think of FERC’s non partisanship, when their “professionals” come for a visit to stomp on the little plebeian ants that live there.

    (hint: http://www.curb-ferc-aep.com/)

    I don’t know Mark Christie in the slightest, so I can only hope his appointment is for the best. Steve Agee personally gave me some of the best legal perspective ever stated in one sentence. Being from the Roanoke area, I am sure he is aware of the hell FERC allowed AEP to unleash in southwest Virginia.

    • Mark was clearly speaking about his experience at the SCC. I’ve come to hold that staff in high regard, as well. What he finds at FERC is beyond me…I had (and wrote here about) one conversation with Bernie McNamee when he was on that commission and that is about the extent of my direct knowledge of FERC.

    • The contoversial FERC decisions on Smith Mountain Lake are akin to HOA decisions. For example. within the project boundary, as on a public street in a neighborhood, no one is allowed to park a tractor trailer. Likewise, within the lake project boundary, no one is allowed to build whatever they want, however size they want, unless it complies with the adopted shoreline management plan. Viewsheds and navigation impediments are major deciding factors.

      Having worked for both the Feds and the State, my opinion is that FERC is more immune to political pressure than state agencies I’m happy to see a hopefully independent Virginia energy professional confirmed at FERC.

      • @DEQ2FERC, you’re understanding of the issue at SML is quite wrong, but from that perspective its more like a one neighbor with deep pockets and political connections decided to unilaterally form an HOA after the subdivision was well established, then proceed to sue / threaten individual property owners into compliance with new restrictions designed to curry political favor.

        The curb-aep-ferc website goes into the depth on the matter

  3. I’m guessin’ the Cap’n will be here shortly with a discussion of the SCC, Sentara, Optima, and/or Anthem. Just a hunch.

    • Also not my main arena, but I don’t know that the SCC is the problem there. Congress and the GA have done much of that on their own, leaving the regulators with a mess not of their own making. Rich corporations usually have good lawyers, usually better than the other side, but that is the only big advantage they get in that courtroom. Can’t wine and dine the judges or staff, no campaign contributions.

      • I actually filed a complaint with the SCC against Anthem some 10+ years back when Anthem ignored my “cancelled check” copies.

        It took them less than a week to put pressure on Anthem which resulted in a quick reversal.

        So, individually, neither do I consider them a problem.

  4. Mr. Christie came after my time before the Commission, but he brings his outstanding reputation to the F.E.R.C., an agency that, in my experience, has lived up to the same values he champions (despite a rocky couple of recent years). I think he well understands, the management of our electric grid and the proper construction and allocation of economic incentives within the regulated energy sector are hugely important to ordinary peoples’ daily lives.

    Of course, that much authority also attracts a plague of special interests and their lobbyists and their toady legislators; but the FERC has learned how, on the whole, to divine the truth while dealing with the worst of these pressures — through an elaborate administrative hearing process that is the envy of most other federal agencies, and not a few State agencies too. Our SCC is very much a keeper of that flame in Virginia.

    I’m sorry to see Mr. Christie leave the SCC, and may his successor be of like character. Virginians need an effective SCC. Instead of hemming-in the SCC’s independence, the GA should learn the political advantages of giving the professionals at the Commission free reign to find the facts and make the difficult political decisions and take the political heat for making them.

  5. Mark Christie was a great public servant. The ideals he articulates above are exactly what you want to hear from an SCC commissioner.

  6. The SCC is not the problem.

  7. It is now about nine hours later. I closed with the praise for Judges Christie and Agee, and my pride in having known and worked with them back in the day on GOP causes, because I feared other emotions would soon dominate the day. My fears were proven founded…..

  8. This takes the puff piece to an entirely new level! And FERC never found an energy project it didn’t like. Thank you Steve. You can get off your knees now.

    • What’s up with the gratuitous hatred, crudity and viciousness today? Did someone piss in your corn flakes this morning?

      • It’s worse later in the day, which make me think he drinks…

        Listen Peter, I understand that you are seeking to get me to stop. That’s your goal. Yes, it was a puff piece for a friend, who I am glad/sad to see moving up. BTW, he didn’t send me the text, somebody on the SCC staff did. But the last crack is just you displaying your inner Trump personality. You are him in spades. I usually ignore you. And I’m posting way, way less than I could because of you but I’m unlikely to stop. You just damage yourself with that behavior.

    • Peter, next time you’re unhappy with the way someone addresses you in the blog, refer back to this comment.

  9. The post is nauseating. Sorry. Honest. Lobbyists sucking up. Calling you out.

  10. A fine and thoughtful post. I wish we had more of them.

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