“Getting involved in commissioner elections? Unbelievably high risk.”
Back in October 2013, Jeff Guldner, who was then the senior vice president of customers and regulation at Arizona Public Service, swore that the state's largest utility would not get involved in political races.
As he told the Arizona Republic, “We don’t tell employees who to vote for or try to influence elections."
But while Guldner, who on Wednesday was named as the next CEO of APS after current chief Donald Brandt retires on November 15, said one thing, APS quickly began doing another. By December 2013, the utility was tracking Corporation Commission candidates for the following year, internal records made public for the first time earlier this year show.
Those documents show that Guldner actively participated in the utility's successful efforts to influence the 2014 and 2016 Corporation Commission races. He got involved in planning as detailed as where campaign signs should be placed, and in a potential plot to plant pro-APS writers at a 2016 press conference.
Brandt's retirement announcement arrived in the midst of a particularly challenging year for the embattled utility. It is under investigation for years of political spending and involvement, and under fire for excessive rates and customer deaths after APS disconnected their power. But this shakeup at the top doesn't exactly augur a new and reformed APS.
"It's yet to be seen whether or not there's real change," Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy told Phoenix New Times. It was her subpoena earlier this year that forced APS to open its books and disclose its political spending. The records showed that APS sought to undermine Kennedy during her unsuccessful bid for Corporation Commission in 2014.
Pointing out that the documents showed Guldner's involvement in APS' political machinations, Kennedy continued, "Will Mr. Guldner continue on the same path that Don Brandt did? It's in the back of my mind, trust me."
If anything, the company seems to be digging in its heels to shore up the political machine built under Brandt, who became CEO in 2009. In mid-July, APS also promoted one of its key architects, Jessica Pacheco, making her vice president of external affairs.
Kennedy said she had "some concerns" about Pacheco's promotion, "knowing that she was the major player" in APS' dark-money campaign.
Hundreds of pages of emails, text messages, invoices, and other records that APS has submitted in a slow trickle to the Corporation Commission this year in response to requests from three commissioners show that while Pacheco was the mastermind behind APS' efforts to elect favorable commissioners, Guldner was regularly consulted by Pacheco and others, and he often weighed in.
"Jeff wants more Forese Little signs," Pacheco texted APS lobbyist Michael Vargas in October 2014, referring to Tom Forese and Doug Little, the Republican candidates whom APS supported with millions in dark money. "Possible to get a new wave of signs in the east valley? That is where he lives."
Pacheco didn't include Jeff's last name, but he was her boss at the time, and those records don't mention any other Jeff but Guldner. Records show that Guldner lived in Chandler until last year, when he and his wife sold the Chandler property and bought a $2.4 million, 48,000-square-foot estate in Paradise Valley.
In November 2014, Forese and Little won their races for the Corporation Commission.
Fast-forward to 2016.
In August of that year, when an APS spokesperson, Anna Haberlein, received a query from a Politico reporter asking about APS' "standard dark money/political participation statement" and "an interview or statement regarding our sentiment on the election," she took it to Pacheco, asking for guidance on how to handle the latter request.
Pacheco deferred to her superiors. "I know Don and Jeff will want to weigh in on this one," Pacheco wrote back.
Haberlein took her query to Guldner, among others, suggesting that APS give the Politico reporter a statement that she, Pacheco, and VP of Regulation Barbara Lockwood had devised.
Guldner approved. "I like the statement," he wrote, suggesting that Haberlein run the statement by one more person at Pinnacle West, "as he is closer to Politico than any of us out here."
That October, it was Guldner who suggested that APS plant two of its writers at a press conference hosted by Democratic Corporation Commission candidates Bill Mundell and Tom Chabin, "who can ask questions on behalf of [internal newsletter] Inside APS."
And it was Guldner who, later that month, emailed Brandt with a draft of an announcement he planned to send to the Pinnacle West board, letting them know that APS would be jumping into that year's race, after learning that solar company SolarCity would be spending money on ads for its preferred candidates — Mundell, Chabin, and Bob Burns — Guldner wrote.
"Unfortunately, this development has required that we take action," he continued. "An Independent Expenditure has been formed called Arizona Coalition for Reliable Electricity (ACRE). [APS parent company] Pinnacle West is the sponsor and major funder of the IE and that will be clearly disclosed."
ACRE would support APS' preferred slate of Bob Burns, Andy Tobin, and Boyd Dunn, Guldner wrote. The email also included a draft of a media release that APS planned to send out.
And in mid-November 2016, it was to Brandt and Guldner that Pacheco sent an election recap, with an overview of ACRE's spending and political activities — doors knocked on, phone calls made, mailings sent.
Kris Mayes, who dealt with both Guldner and Brandt during her time as a Corporation Commissioner from 2003 to 2010, expressed optimism that under Guldner, APS would be a different utility — a better one.
“I actually expect Jeff Guldner to stop the political spending and dramatically ramp up the amount of renewable energy that this utility does,” Mayes told New Times. “He’s got an enormous mess to clean up,” she added.
When Mayes chaired the corporation commission from 2009 to 2010, Guldner was vice president of regulatory affairs for APS, and “he was very responsive to the commissioners,” Mayes said.
“I felt he was very open and communicative,” she said. Brandt, by contrast, was “a reluctant witness and participant.”
While she wasn’t happy to see Guldner’s involvement in APS’ political activities, Mayes added, “For the first time in a decade, I’m pretty hopeful about the future of APS.”
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Kennedy, one of the current commissioners, said she would take a wait-and-see approach with Guldner.
"I"d like to see what his goals are, what his leadership team is going to look like," she said. "I think the commission has an opportunity now to kind of mold and shape one of Arizona's largest utility companies ... and not allow this company to get out of the hand the way they got under Don Brandt's leadership."
Two spokespeople for APS did not reply to requests for comment.