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January 12th, 2005 The Nose | The Nose
 

Fool Me Twice...

     
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The Turnip Truck
Maybe Joan Smith was wrong. Maybe we did just fall off a turnip truck.

You may not know ol' Joan--the title "former Public Utility Commissioner" doesn't rate too high on the Fame-O-Meter. Smith earned a tiny shard of immortality a few years ago, when the PUC was trying to decide whether to let a whiz-bang Texas company called Enron buy Portland General Electric, the company that pumps juice into most Portlanders' homes. Back then, some people worried Enron just might be trying to put one over on us, but Smith said not to worry. Oregonians, she said, didn't just fall off the turnip truck. She and her colleagues OK'd the takeover.

Guess what happened.

Enron bought PGE. It collected from ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars it said it needed to pay federal income taxes. Then it kept the money rather than paying those taxes. And then it went bankrupt. Hundreds of PGE employees lost their pensions--and thousands of Oregonians got to see what it feels like to be treated like a sub-Saharan backwater.

Now, flash forward to 2005. Another bunch of Lone Star financial honchos, the takeover specialists from Texas Pacific Group, are asking the Oregon Public Utility Commission for permission to buy Portland General Electric.

Publicly, Texas Pacific says, "PGE is a marvelous company. We see no need to make any changes, and we plan to hold on to it for a long, long time, and our profits will be modest."

Confidentially, according to documents this newspaper got its hands on last week, the Fort Worth company is saying, "We'll fire employees, reduce customer service, plunder the company, sell it in five years and make a bundle."

The response from Lee Beyer, the chairman of the Public Utility Commission and the man in whose hands the future of Portland General Electric rests?

"I don't see any discrepancies."

The response from Tom Walsh, the builder who was chosen to oversee the utility for Texas Pacific to ensure local control?

"I haven't read the documents."

Anyone see a turnip truck speeding away?

The stench of this deal has been in the air ever since the public announcement of Texas Pacific's bid in November 2003, an event followed that evening by an intimate dinner at the Eugene Hilton that Texas Pacific partners David Bonderman and Kelvin Davis had with Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the men who brought them together, Neil Goldschmidt and his partner, Tom Imeson.

Despite the strange feeling of déjà vu all over again, the deal has weathered many a storm. It survived when Goldschmidt bowed out due to The Scandal. It beat back the opposition by virtually every institution in the state (except for The Oregonian, which has written that the Texas Pacific purchase "will lead to a stronger, better-managed utility that is crucial to the Oregon economy"). And it even seems to be surviving last week's publication by WW of the secret documents that show a level of insincerity that would make Judas proud.

This week, Commissioner Beyer, speaking to one of the Nose's colleagues, was asked about the confidential documents showing that Texas Pacific was planning to pocket millions of dollars of savings from efficiencies and not pass them on to the ratepayers.

Beyer responded, "If you think the commission would let them do that, you're smoking the drapes."

Or perhaps turnips?

 
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