PSC reconsidering permit for Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission lines after potential conflict of interest surfaces

Nicole Aimone, Editor-in-Chief

The Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to reconsider the controversial Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission line project July 1, following secret messages between a former regulator and employees of the utilities involved in the projects came to light. 

Photo via Public Service Commission of Wisconsin

The PSC voted 2-0 to give notice of intent to rescind an original permit granted for the project, the $450 million controversial project would span throughout southwestern Wisconsin and Iowa. 

The reversal comes after owners of the transmission lines, American Transmission Co. (ATC) and ITC Midwest  filed a request with the PSC June 29, for the permit to be nullified. The owning companies citing the discovery of former PSC regulator, Mike Huebsch, who was involved in the initial permit approval, had regular, private communications with an ATC employee, an ITC employee, among other individuals for multiple years as the transmission line was working through the approval process. 

The permit for the project was already facing nullification in court, after Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC), various other environmental advocacy groups as well as Dane and Iowa Counties filed to stop the 102 mile line, citing bias by Huebsch. 

Dane County Judge Jacob Frost allowed for an investigation into the approval process in the beginning of June, stating if the groups could prove at least one out of three approving PSC regulators were biased, Frost would overturn the permits. 

In its filing to recall the permit, ATC said Huebsch exchanged encrypted text messages using the messaging service Signal. 

The Signal messages in question came out through a legal discovery in the DALC lawsuit looking to stop the transmission lines. The legal discovery found that Huebsch had applied to be the CEO of Dairyland, a power company involved with transmission lines, after leaving the PSC in February, but did not get the job. The discovery also found that Huebsch exchanged personal, private text messages with Dairyland executives. 

In a prepared statement, Huebsch said he used Signal to chat with friends that he’s known for over 25 years, without the messages filling up a phone’s hard drive. 

“Although some of them are connected to the utility industry, at no point have I discussed with them over Signal anything related to my work as a commissioner,” said Huebsch. “That’s primarily because we are all aware of the law, and we know ex parte communication is not allowed. And, frankly the commission’s business is just not that interesting.”

On the same day as ATC’s court filing regarding the permit, Huebsch informed a court that PSC lawyers will no longer be representing him. 

The decision on the permit will go back to the PSC, following being open for further studies and comments.