Arizona Regulator Seeks Outside Probe Into Stephanie Pullman's Death

Elizabeth Whitman
Protesters on June 20 rally against Arizona Public Service and the Corporation Commission.
An Arizona Corporation Commissioner wants a third-party investigation into the heat-related death of an Arizona Public Service customer after the utility cut her power on a 107-degree day last September.

In a letter filed Friday, Lea Marquez Peterson, the commissioner newly appointed by Governor Doug Ducey, requested "a full-scale investigation" conducted by "an outside agency or third-party contractor" to tackle the many unanswered questions regarding the shutoff to the customer, Stephanie Pullman.

Pullman was 72 years old and owed just $51 to stave off disconnection.

Marquez Peterson's request came a few days after CorpComm, widely viewed as toothless and captive to those it regulates, released preliminary findings from an internal investigation into whether APS broke any rules in cutting power to Pullman. Her letter contained 11 detailed follow-up questions about the days surrounding Pullman's shutoff, including:
  • Why was Pullman's power disconnected just two days after a door-hanger was delivered?
  • Who made her final payment?
  • Why was Smith's phone call never escalated from an inquiry to a complaint?
  • What, if anything, does the CorpComm plan to do to resolve discrepancies in policies that proved relevant in Pullman's death?
  • Are there more Stephanie Pullmans out there?
  • Who worked on the investigation?
  • What was done to prevent potential conflicts of interest?
Marquez Peterson's specific questions about those procedures, and her comments on the merits of an independent investigation, hinted at a keen awareness of the poor public image associated with Arizona's fourth body of government.

"This kind of information would be useful in promoting transparency, assuring the public that the methodology of the [initial] investigation was sound, and that conflicts of interest were avoided," Marquez Peterson wrote in her letter to four fellow commissioners.

Following that preliminary probe, staff concluded that it couldn't determine whether the utility had broken CorpComm regulations, even as it found that the utility couldn't prove it had taken certain required steps before terminating electricity to Pullman's home in Sun City West. The investigation also left unanswered a host of questions surrounding Pullman's shutoff and the rules that are supposed to govern such situations.

"The findings offer insight and context to a complex situation," Marquez Peterson wrote. "Unfortunately, this report may also leave the public with a host of additional questions regarding how the investigation was administered, and what additional questions could have been asked to provide further clarity."

That investigation, she wrote, "does not go far enough to provide satisfactory answers and prevent potential conflicts of interest."

She asked for a discussion and vote at the next CorpComm open meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, July 10, and Thursday, July 11, on having a third-party agency "conduct a full-scale investigation into this matter and the associated rules, policies, and procedures of the Commission."

It's not yet clear whether that discussion and vote will happen, as the agenda for that meeting has not been made public and a spokesperson for the CorpComm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the unasked questions from the initial investigation were ones that, Marquez Peterson pointed out, she herself had asked in a letter the day after the news broke of Pullman's death. In that letter, she asked that any CorpComm staff who participated in APS's 2016 rate case, which likely affected Pullman's inability to pay her final bills, not be involved in the preliminary investigation, in order to prevent conflicts of interest.

That investigation was derided by critics of the CorpComm and APS as a CYA move that effectively exonerated  regulators and staff for doing nothing after one of Pullman's daughters, Jeanine Smith, called the agency following her mother's death.

"The Arizona Corporation Commission has investigated itself and pronounced itself innocent of any foul-ups, fumbles, or failures to follow through in the appalling case of the 72-year-old woman who died after power was cut to her Sun City home," wrote Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts.

It is unclear whether the results of an independent investigation, as called for by Marquez Peterson, would produce results any different from the CorpComm's own self-exculpatory findings. Her letter did not address key details, like who would conduct such a third-party investigation or how that person or agency would be selected, or lay demands for the practical requirements for a future investigation.

click to enlarge Four Corporation Commissioners discussed a prohibition on summer utility shutoffs on Thursday, June 20, 2019. The fifth, Lea Marquez Peterson, was on vacation. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Four Corporation Commissioners discussed a prohibition on summer utility shutoffs on Thursday, June 20, 2019. The fifth, Lea Marquez Peterson, was on vacation.
Elizabeth Whitman
The letter did contain long sections touting the virtues of an independent investigation such as the one she was requesting, along with chunks of rhetoric that could easily be read as future campaign material.

"A full investigation will provide the transparency and independence necessary to properly inform both the public and the Commission," she wrote.

"For too long, the integrity and transparency of this commission has been questioned and discounted by the public," she added. "This is understandable, especially when it is the media, rather than our own Staff, who have uncovered and informed the Commission of these issues and have been the catalyst for Commissioners considering meaningful change."

The last major vote regarding utility shutoffs that Corporation Commissioners took was on June 20. The four Commissioners who were present voted unanimously to ban power shutoffs between June 1 and October 15. Marquez Peterson missed that vote, due to a preplanned vacation.