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July 14th, 2004 The Nose | The Nose
 

A New Snout in the Trough

     
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Pig. No lipstick.
The Nose's mama always said there was no point in putting lipstick on a pig.

Seems like that advice has never reached cow country.

Back in November, some wranglers called the Texas Pacific Group hired Neil Goldschmidt to help tie up the loose ends of their proposed purchase of Portland General Electric, the state's largest utility.

The Nose was confused then about Goldschmidt's role. Here was a paid consultant to PacifiCorp riding to rescue that utility's biggest rival. Here was the chief spokesman against public takeover of PGE, not disclosing his plans to join up with the boys from Texas Pacific. How could the former mayor and governor treat us that way?

Turned out Goldschmidt had bigger problems than conflicts of interest and duplicity--but that's another story (see "The 30-Year Secret," WW, May 12, 2004).

Now, with Goldschmidt off in some undisclosed wine cellar, the Texans, who are using $300 million of Oregon pension money to buy PGE, need a new frontman.

Last week, they introduced the new Goldschmidt: Dr. Peter Kohler, president of Oregon Health & Science University. In some ways, Kohler looks a lot like the man he replaced. He's got that same white hair a car dealer would kill for, he doesn't know much about utilities, and he comes to the party with at least of couple of glaring conflicts of interest.

First, Kohler currently works for an outfit that is counting on the city government to bankroll OHSU's tram and billion-dollar gamble on the Willamette.

One of the Nose's pals at City Hall says the good doctor never mentioned an interest in electricity prior to signing on with Texas Pacific. Maybe he forgot that his partners at the city are dead set against PGE falling into the Texans' hands.

But there's money to be made. Kohler, who hauls down $600,000 a year (making him the state's highest-paid public employee who doesn't play with pigskin), will pick up another $95,000 a year in cash and stock for attending a few PGE board meetings.

And despite his lack of utility experience--a quality he shares with the other five locals Texas Pacific tapped for its bid last week--Kohler is convinced this is a good deal. So good, in fact, that he's personally investing $500,000 in the deal, a stake that puts him in an awkward position.

You see, OHSU, which serves more poor people than any other local hospital, is Portland's biggest employer and one of PGE's biggest customers. You might think, then, Kohler would want low electricity rates for his patients, his employees and his institution.

But Kohler's now got 500,000 reasons to want to help his new Texas amigos jam electricity rates sky high. They've already said customers have more chance of winning at Powerball than getting any rate relief, even though there's supposed to be a public benefit any time a regulated utility changes hands.

So if the Nose is getting this right, Kohler's renting his name for a share in a monopoly business that his partners are buying dirt cheap, in large part with customers' money. And instead of asking tough questions about TPG's plan, groups like the Oregon Investment Council and The Oregonian are cheering it on.

No wonder Kohler's pushing his snout into the trough.

Hope the lipstick doesn't smudge.

 
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