ATLANTA — Utility regulators in Georgia abandoned a plan Thursday to give a $10,000 fine from a telephone company to an anti-abortion charity with ties to two officials, a decision that came after the attorney general warned the idea was unconstitutional.
The members of the Public Service Commission voted unanimously to send the fine from Peerless Network of Georgia LLC to the state treasury. The firm agreed to pay the money for violating various reporting requirements.
Last week, Public Service Commissioner H. Doug Everett proposed that Peerless resolve the case by paying the $10,000 to Care Net, where his wife works as an unpaid volunteer.
The Christian charity discourages pregnant women from having abortions and provides them with financial and other support. Everett abandoned that plan Thursday.
The commissioners agreed last week to accept the settlement, but they delayed until Thursday a decision on where to send the funds.
“With the benefit of hindsight because we put it on hold, I think that the charity is a very worthy cause, I may consider giving them a personal contribution ... but I don’t think there’s a strong enough nexus there,” PSC Chairman Chuck Eaton said.
Everett’s plan received initial backing from Commissioner Tim Echols, who serves an unpaid member of the charity’s advisory board. Echols has previous financial ties to Care Net. Its national parent organization paid him nearly $10,000 for consulting services in 2006. The chairman of its Georgia affiliate has donated $600 to Echols’ political campaign.
Lawyers had warned Everett that his plan was likely illegal.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Daniel Walsh told the commissioners in an Aug. 29 e-mail that there may be legal justification for approving settlements where a company, for example, pays consumer refunds rather than a fine.
However, Walsh cautioned that there needed to be a connection between the violation and the spending.
“Here, I don’t see a plausible connection between a utility regulation and a pregnancy center,” Walsh wrote, according to documents released under Georgia’s open records law.
When that advice was ignored, Attorney General Sam Olens warned in a Sept. 4 letter that the PSC could not authorize an agreement in which a regulated company resolves a legal violation by donating money to a private charity.
“Despite the obvious good intentions of those expressing an interest in a settlement agreement that would provide funds to various non-profit organizations, the law simply does not permit such a result,” Olens said.
An attorney for Peerless declined to comment.