Petition Asks New CEO Jeff Guldner to 'Stop All APS Spending on Elections'

New APS CEO Jeff Guldner in March 2019, a few months before his promotion.
New APS CEO Jeff Guldner in March 2019, a few months before his promotion. Gage Skidmore via Flickr
A new petition is asking Arizona Public Service's new CEO, Jeff Guldner, who ascended to the top office on Monday, to launch a new chapter and to pledge not to spend any company money on elections.

Such a promise would be a tall order for a company with a tarnished recent history that is used to buying its way.

"For years, APS was among the most trusted institutions in Arizona," says the petition, which was addressed to Guldner and published online by a nonprofit group on Monday. "As you are aware, that is no longer the case. Public trust in your company has eroded significantly due to aggressive efforts by your predecessor to use the company's financial power to influence elections."

The drive was organized by the Arizona Advocacy Network Foundation, which is legally distinct from but affiliated with the Arizona Advocacy Network, a political nonprofit. Among the network's stated beliefs are that "political decisions driven by voters instead of money" are essential to "a vibrant democracy."

The foundation simultaneously released a comprehensive report on Monday that detailed those "aggressive efforts" by APS.

Joel Edman, the groups' executive director, said they would spread the petition through social media as well as by a mobile billboard truck that will rove downtown Phoenix this week, periodically stationing itself outside of the APS office.

click to enlarge Protesters against Arizona Public Service gathered June 20 outside the Phoenix Art Museum. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Protesters against Arizona Public Service gathered June 20 outside the Phoenix Art Museum.
Elizabeth Whitman
They also plan to send the report and letter to the board of APS's parent company, Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, and to leave a copy of the report at the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the utility, he said.

Since 2013, APS and the publicly owned Pinnacle West have dumped some $130 million into Arizona politics. In 2014, it did so secretly — and successfully — in favor of Corporation Commission candidates who supported the utility's interests. In the last five years, rates for customers have risen, and APS's revenues have soared.

The companies released internal documents to commissioners earlier this year showing the $130 million it had poured into political spending, charitable contributions, lobbying, marketing and advertising, and sponsorships, which they released to commissioners only under threat of subpoena.

It was under Guldner's predecessor, Don Brandt, that APS began manufacturing that political machine, many believe, and regulators have insinuated.

The petition echoed that claim, saying that Brandt "oversaw a reckless crusade to amass political power for APS."

Brandt announced in August that he would retire November 15. He will still receive $1.75 million in consulting fees from the company over the coming year, the Arizona Mirror reported last week.

Anyone who signs the new petition is pushing for Guldner to end those political-spending practices associated with Brandt.

"A change of leadership is a first step, but the next critical step is to commit that APS will no longer use its massive profits to influence elections," the petition reads.

It adds, "APS customers and all Arizona voters will be looking to you to rebuild a relationship of trust between APS and the people of this state."

This is not the first time Guldner has been called upon to pledge to end APS's political spending.

In September, Guldner joined Brandt and another APS executive, Dan Froestcher, in an appearance before the Corporation Commission as the regulators tried to hold them accountable for shutoffs that resulted in customer deaths.

click to enlarge Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt during a hearing before the Arizona Corporation Commission on September 4, 2019. - TOM TINGLE/ARIZONA REPUBLIC POOL PHOTO
Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt during a hearing before the Arizona Corporation Commission on September 4, 2019.
Tom Tingle/Arizona Republic pool photo
During the hearing, Chairman Bob Burns tried to extract a promise from Guldner that APS would not spend funds on future political races.

Guldner demurred, saying he wasn't CEO yet but would be "happy" to return before commissioners after November 15.

"Consider yourself invited, as soon as you're sworn in," Burns replied.

Burns told Phoenix New Times on Monday that the commission was still working to bring Guldner back, for the January opening meeting scheduled for January 14 and 15.

Burns said he is still seeking a pledge from Guldner not to spend money in politics, specifically on races for the Corporation Commission.

"I don't think they ought to be involved in the others either, but the commission races are critical," he added.

Burns suggested that if Guldner made such a pledge publicly, before the Corporation Commission, it'd be tough for him to avoid, although it remains unclear how such a pledge, if violated, would or could be enforced.

"To me that would be sufficient, unless he violated it," Burns said of a public pledge. "Then there’d have to be some kind of repercussions for that."

Otherwise, he added, "we would respect his integrity, if he made that pledge, that he would live up to it."

Suzanne Trevino, a spokesperson for APS, did not respond by deadline to New Times' request for comments from APS and from Guldner.

Edman said that if APS ceased attempting to influence state politics it wouldn't be a major change, but a reversion to old ways. 

He recalled that when he was growing up in the Valley, APS had a markedly different reputation.

It didn't spend on politics, and while it donated to nonprofits as it does now, back then, "it sort of felt like their support ... was trying to be a genuine partner in the community," he said. "Now, it's sort of trying to make up for reputational damage."

This article has been updated to correct the month that Guldner is expected to appear before the Corporation Commission. It is January, not December.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.