PUD aims for payoff

Snohomish County PUD’s dogged effort to dig out proof that Enron manipulated energy prices during the 2000-01 energy crisis has won the utility fans across the country and within its own borders.

Despite opposition from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the PUD pushed for and succeeded at persuading the U.S. Department of Justice to release thousands of hours of taped conversations by Enron energy traders.

The PUD has spent more than $100,000 transcribing about one-third of the tapes it received, money PUD leaders say will help them avoid paying $122 million Enron says the PUD owes it. The tapes could also lead to up to $10 million in refunds, the amount the PUD believes Enron overcharged it for power delivered in 2001.

Last week’s release of some of the taped conversations created a stir across the country, both for the foul language the traders used and, more importantly, because they admitted to intentionally driving up energy prices.

Signing such a contract with Enron contributed to the PUD raising its rates by 50 percent in 2001, rates that have not come down and are still among the highest in the state.

The PUD’s push to publish Enron’s conversations will benefit dozens of utilities bilked by Enron and its price-gouging ways, said Jerry Leone, director of the Portland-based Public Power Council.

“Snohomish was the one who fought like crazed weasels to shake (the transcripts) out of the Department of Justice,” Leone said.

Leone said other utilities are already looking at how they can use the transcripts to try to leverage refunds not only from Enron, but from other energy traders that used Enron-like tactics.

PUD customers who have in the past been critical of the PUD and its high prices are fully behind the utility’s effort to get refunds and fight off Enron’s demand for more money from the PUD.

Karen Fisher of Edmonds said Enron swindled the PUD’s customers. “I’m one of the grandmas that they’re talking about.”

In perhaps the most salacious transcripts released by the PUD last week, two Enron traders made comments about how they were stealing money from grandmothers in California.

Here’s what they said:

“So the rumor’s true?” one trader asked another. “They’re (expletive) takin’ all the money back from you guys? All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”

“Yeah, Grandma Millie, man,” the second trader replied. “But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to (expletive) vote on the butterfly ballot.”

Grandmother Fisher said to the PUD: “Go get ‘em.”

Hal Zack of Lynnwood also supports the PUD’s bid to go after Enron, saying that he fully supports the utility despite in the past being highly critical of how it spends its money.

“I think they should call their bluff,” he said. “I don’t think they should pay them.”

Washington D.C. energy attorney Phil Chabot said the PUD has turned the heat back on Enron across the entire country, heat he hopes rubs off on other utilities that have been accused of running up prices during the energy crisis.

Chabot is working to get refunds for the Port of Seattle, which he said was overcharged by a handful of energy brokers during the energy crisis to the tune of $18 million.

“Snohomish has really done a great service for everybody,” Chabot said. “It’s a major breakthrough (to release the transcripts) in that they obtain information that nobody else had ever gotten.”

Spending the time and money to get the transcripts was well worth it, said Cynthia First, PUD commission president.

“There may be other evidence, they may be talking about other utilities (on the tapes),” First said.

The tapes were uncovered by the Justice Department during its investigation of Enron trading practices. It’s standard practice in the industry to tape phone calls made by energy traders.

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