It's not just banks: Florida utility chief commutes by 'copter

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Power & Light, embroiled in a controversial hearing to raise electric rates, says part of the 30 percent increase would pay for a new $31 million corporate jet to replace a 10-year-old jet in its three-aircraft fleet.

FPL executives hastened to explain that the bill for the new jet would be offset by trading in the old one for $18 million, leaving customers responsible for $13 million of the tab.

A handful of FPL executives are allowed to use the corporate jet for personal use, company officials said. Among them is CEO Armando Olivera, who told regulators that he used the plane for the Tallahassee hearing and often uses the company helicopter to travel between his hometown of Miami and his company's headquarters in Juno Beach.

When asked if he used the company helicopter to get to work, he said, "not all the time, but generally.''

The testimony came in the second week of the rate case that has been accompanied by a swirl of accusations that the Public Service Commission has become too close to the utilities it regulates.

The PSC is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Leon County state attorney for possible improper communication between top FPL executives and the PSC, which approves its rates. Despite complaints that they are too cozy with regulators, FPL has defied an order by the PSC to reveal the top salaries of company executives, and one PSC commissioner has called for the firing of a PSC lobbyist who attended a party at the home of an FPL executive.

As the hearings wrapped up Saturday, The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times also learned that three aides to Florida utility regulators repeatedly gave private BlackBerry messaging codes to an FPL executive, potentially allowing the utility to communicate directly with them outside of public view and without leaving a paper trail.

The newspapers obtained e-mails sent between February 2008 and February 2009 that show FPL attorney Natalie Smith repeatedly requested and received the Personal Identification Numbers, or PINs, of the state-provided BlackBerry phones of PSC staff members, as well as the PIN to Commissioner Lisa Edgar's BlackBerry phone.

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