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Duke Hiring Probe Puts New Indiana Power Plant In Question

A flurry of ethics investigations involving Duke Energy and state utility regulators in Indiana has put the company's plans for a multi-billion dollar coal-fired power plant in question. The firestorm is over a man appropriately named Scott Storms, and actually began with an innocuous hiring announcement in a trade magazine. A snippet last month announcing that Scott Storms had taken a job with Duke Energy caught Grant Smith's eye. He's executive director of a utility watchdog group in Indiana called Citizens Action Coalition: "We immediately put out a press release saying this is inappropriate," says Smith. "Inappropriate" because Scott Storms has spent the last several years as an attorney and administrative law judge for the Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission. During that time he made procedural decisions in favor of Duke Energy. The company plans to build a new $2.9 billion coal-fired power plant in southwest Indiana and raise customer rates to pay for it. "And now he's taking a job with the company he's been regulating the past three or four years and making decisions on this proceeding," says Smith. Emails have since surfaced showing a cozy relationship between Storms and Duke Energy's Indiana President. The company has placed both on administrative leave and spokeswoman Angeline Protegere says Duke has hired an outside law firm to investigate. "We'll investigate thoroughly and take whatever actions are appropriate," says Protegere. "Meanwhile we're fully cooperating with other external reviews that are going on." Those include probes by both the Indiana Ethics Commission and Utilities Regulatory Commission. Indiana's governor has fired the chairman of the utilities commission over the hiring scandal. The commission is now auditing decisions Scott Storms made involving Duke Energy's new power plant. Environmental groups hope to see the plant derailed because they say it deepens reliance on coal. It's already half built. Duke Energy says the plant will burn coal much more cleanly and is necessary to meet Indiana's electric needs. It's also key to Duke's bottom line as its most significant investment in a process called coal gasification. Now the Indiana Utilities Regulatory Commission wants to make sure it acted in the public's interest, in light of the possible conflicts of interest. It's summoned Duke CEO Jim Rogers to a meeting next month to defend his plans for the power plant. Rogers says he will attend. "We recognize the need to ensure the public's trust," says Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protegere.