ATCO chief executive officer Nancy Southern addresses the company's annual meeting in Calgary, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. Alberta's utilities regulator has ruled on whether a consumer's group can address an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by one of the province's main power providers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Regulator rules it’s too early for public group to have role in ATCO probe talks

If a settlement or a formal hearing proposed, the coalition can ask again to submit its views

Alberta’s utilities regulator says it’s too early in a dispute over alleged wrongdoing by one of the province’s main power providers for a consumer’s group to address the investigation into ATCO Electric.

“This proceeding is currently at the first phase, with a possibility of a settlement,” says a ruling from the Alberta Utilities Commission dated Tuesday. “The Commission finds that assessing the (Consumer’s Coalition of Alberta)’s participation in this proceeding is premature.”

It says if a settlement is proposed or a formal hearing is called, the coalition can ask again to submit its views on what penalties and restitution should be imposed on the company.

Coalition lawyer Jim Wachowich said his group isn’t giving up.

“Our request for standing remains in place,” he said. “This enforcement is unique and (the commission) probably wants to take a ‘go slow and be certain’ approach to it.”

The commission’s talks with ATCO Electric stem from findings of commission investigators.

In November, the commission’s enforcement branch requested a hearing into its conclusions that the company deliberately overpaid a British Columbia First Nation by millions for work on a new transmission line. It allegedly did so to secure lucrative contracts for another ATCO company to provide construction camps for the Trans Mountain Expansion oil pipeline project.

Investigators said the company then allegedly tried to pass the $12-million overpayment on to Alberta consumers, in violation of the law. They alleged company management was aware the arrangement was questionable and tried to cover its tracks.

ATCO has acknowledged it made mistakes. In an Oct. 29 letter to the commission’s enforcement branch, company president Melanie Bayley offered a $16-million settlement.

In other correspondence, the company has suggested the overpriced contract was entered into to help the First Nation build capacity in a new area of business.

However, documents uncovered by investigators allege the First Nation took the money and subcontracted the work, as company officials expected it would.

Wachowich said his group will continue to follow the proceeding. He said ATCO is expected to file its internal investigation into the matter next week.

“We intend to continue to request standing and be involved,” he said.

In an email, Bayley has said it’s “typical” for administrative penalties to be handled by a company and the commission without customer or intervener involvement.

—Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Watchdog group wants seat on Alberta probe into ATCO B.C. Trans Mountain dealings

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