Cindy McCain Defends APS, Don Brandt, Forgets Nearly $1 Million in Donations

Cindy McCain in 2013.
Cindy McCain in 2013. Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Cindy McCain, whose McCain Institute has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the nonprofit branch of Arizona Public Service, ran interference over the weekend for APS executive Donald Brandt.

In an op-ed for the Arizona Republic on Saturday, McCain defended her "long, dear friend" against demands that he be held accountable for customer deaths connected with shutoffs by the utility, which she also defended.

McCain chairs the board of trustees of the McCain Institute, a think-tank named for her late husband, Senator John McCain. The Arizona Public Service Foundation is a top donor to the institute. In 2017, it gave $100,000 and pledged an additional $500,000, tax records show.

In addition to being the chief executive of Arizona Public Service and its parent company, Pinnacle West, Brandt is the chairman and president of the APS Foundation. He also sits on the McCain Institute's board of trustees.

A brief biography at the end of the op-ed said that Cindy McCain chaired the McCain Institute's board of trustees, but it did not disclose the donations from the APS Foundation to the institute. Nor did it disclose Brandt's position on the board of trustees.

Phil Boas, editorial page director for the Republic, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lack of disclosure. A spokesperson for the McCain Institute did not respond to a similar query.

The ties between the McCains and Pinnacle West/Arizona Public Service run deeper than the McCains' think tank.

Brandt personally contributed at least $5,400 to John McCain's re-election campaign in 2015, federal campaign finance data shows. Other executives, like Chief Financial Officer James Hatfield and Vice President of External Affairs Jessica Pacheco, have also donated thousands.

Throughout John McCain's decades-long political career, Pinnacle West employees or political action committees donated more than $310,000 to his campaigns.

All told, that would mean that Pinnacle West and APS, its employees, and its foundations have donated close to $1 million to McCain campaigns and think tanks.

Cindy McCain took to Arizona's paper of record to call Brandt "a strong, principled leader who cares deeply about our great state and the people in it," and drew indirect parallels between him and John McCain without presenting specific examples.

Stephanie Pullman
Family of Stephanie Pullman
"My late husband was vilified by political opponents and critics on both sides of the aisle. Nonetheless, he stood up and spoke out for what he believed," the piece said.

"As public servants and community leaders, many Arizonans feel called to serve this greater good," the piece added. "I want to highlight the work of one such local leader, Donald Brandt, the head of Arizona Public Service, APS."

Brandt has come under criticism since mid-June, when news broke that 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman died of heat-related causes after APS cut her power on a 107-degree day over $51 owed.

A week later, as Brandt was receiving a prestigious award from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, about two dozen protesters gathered peacefully on the sidewalk outside Phoenix Art Museum where the ceremony was taking place.

“Say her name!” they chanted, holding posters with Pullman's photo and the slogan #StoptheAPSGreed. “Stephanie Pullman! Say her name!” The chant evolved. “Shame on APS! Shame on Don Brandt.”

Stacey Champion, the activist who organized the protest, read aloud a statement from Pullman's adult children that concluded, "We demand a response from Don Brandt."

McCain's piece did not see the peaceful demonstration as an effort to hold truth to power. Instead, she saw them as "lies, name-calling and fear-mongering."

"As his family, friends and colleagues celebrated his tremendous contributions to Arizona, protesters staged a dangerous scene outside the reception hall, engaging in unfair personal attacks and chanting heinous messages crafted to incite hate and fear," she wrote.

It wasn't entirely clear, from McCain's op-ed, what Brandt's "tremendous contributions to Arizona" were.

Rather, she wrote that Brandt was principled, patriotic, and "personally involved in civic and charitable organizations." She highlighted that Brandt had been kind to her and her late husband during his final days of fighting brain cancer.

Brandt still has yet to comment on or apologize publicly for Pullman's death. He has not been held accountable by state regulators. Instead, Arizona's political elite have jumped to his defense.

click to enlarge Pinnacle West CEO Don Brandt. - YOUTUBE
Pinnacle West CEO Don Brandt.
His first public response to the Arizona Corporation Commission's subsequent and ongoing investigation into utility shutoff policies came on Friday — six weeks after the news broke of Pullman's death — when Brandt agreed to appear before commissioners and answer questions.

It's not clear whether he will do so within the commissioners' requested time frame. They asked him to appear August 7, but he asked for more time. They have yet to respond.

In her op-ed, McCain also defended APS, "a company that provides safe, reliable electricity to more than a million people across Arizona."

Shutoff data show that one in 10 APS customers had their electricity disconnected for unpaid bills in 2018, and numerous customers have said they've faced financial hardships because of APS bills, which have risen steadily in recent years.

Pinnacle West's profits have skyrocketed this year. It made $17.9 million in the first three months of this year — five times the $3.2 million it made during the first three months of 2018.

Last year, Brandt took home $12 million in compensation.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.