Saunders: Electric merger jolts customers while conscience outage hits Duke Energy

barry.saunders@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2012 

A few years ago when the two alpha dogs at a local investment firm were warring and on the verge of splitting up, I asked an employee to confirm for me some juicy, privileged information about the dispute.

He demurred, saying, “That’s a fight between two millionaires. Whoever wins, I lose.”

That’s the way many of us felt about the takeover – merger, my eye – of Progress Energy by Duke Energy: That was a deal between two multi-billion-dollar corporations, and regardless of which one won, we would end up paying.

When the merger was finally approved last week, most of us greeted it with the same level of shock and dismay with which we greeted the short-awaited admission by Anderson Cooper that he is gay: In both instances, we already knew. More power to ya’, AC.

Speaking of AC, since I’ve paid this month’s power bill and don’t have to worry about my electricity being cut off as payback, here’s the truth about that so-called merger: it stinks – at least the pretense under which it was sold to us stinks.

In charge for 20 minutes

Despite his being tapped as the pilot who would lead the nation’s newly formed largest utility company, Bill Johnson’s tenure as CEO lasted, according to a former Progress Energy board member, 20 minutes. That’s how long it took before Duke turned out the light on his leadership and – most likely – its credibility.

Twenty minutes? Man, I lasted longer than that in Bible college, although not by much.

Duke did the ol’ bait-and-switch on the N.C. Utilities Commission, on us and, apparently, on Johnson himself. By parading him as putative head of the merged companies, Duke knew the public and regulators would be lulled into thinking that a corporate presence in Raleigh would be a foregone conclusion, a continuation of what had been when Johnson was leading Progress Energy.

I asked Bryan Beatty of the utilities commission if the commission has any recourse if it finds that the fix was in – and Johnson was out – even before the deal was a fait accompli.

“That’s what we’re discussing now,” Beatty said Friday. “Our decision (to approve the merger) was based on an analysis of whether the benefits outweighed the liabilities. Obviously, our concern is to protect the public interest. ... Our condition wasn’t that Bill Johnson be president but that they comply with our orders to have a significant presence in Raleigh.”

‘Frankly, I felt misled’

In a recent N&O story, former Progress Energy board member Alfred Tollison Jr. said after Johnson’s quick ouster, “Frankly, I felt misled.”

Lord, Alfred. So do all of us. As Malcolm X said, we have been misled, led astray, hoodwinked and bamboozled by Duke Energy. So, apparently, has Bill Johnson.

He’s getting about $44 million out of the deal, so at least one person will be able to pay the higher light bills likely to result from the takeover.

Tollison also said, “Just from circumstantial evidence you would have to think it didn’t happen overnight, that there was a lot of forethought given” to giving Johnson the quick heave-ho.

Attorney General Roy Cooper and the utilities commission think so too, since both announced investigations, one into Duke’s CEO strategy and the other into whether the company lied when it sought and received a 7 percent rate hike last year. Remember how Duke was po’ mouthing something terrible when it came to the utilities commission, hat-in-hand, seeking to raise our rates? Now it can afford to bestow millions upon a man just to make him go away?

Yep, that stinks.

Saunders: 919-836-2811

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