NEW HAMPSHIRE PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION
Issued February 24, 2012
The New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission is committed to maintaining high standards of ethical conduct on the part of Commissioners and Commission employees (Staff). While it is impossible to articulate each and every example of ethical and unethical behavior, this policy is intended to outline standards of ethical conduct to be observed by everyone employed by this agency.
Underlying this policy statement is a comprehensive set of legal requirements, including the Commission’s own Code of Ethics, RSA 363:12, and other New Hampshire ethics statutes incorporated by reference in this policy. It is therefore important that all employees familiarize themselves with the relevant statutes, copies of which are linked within this policy statement. The Commission, moreover, fully anticipates that each employee will accept individual responsibility for his or her own conduct and will engage in no conduct that would undermine his or her personal integrity or the reputation of this agency. In the event of a conflict between this policy statement and the underlying legal requirements, the stricter provision shall govern.
Violations of this policy may result in disciplinary action, including termination. See N.H. Code Admin. Rules Per 1002.08(b)(7).
II. GENERAL PRINCIPLES
RSA 363:12 sets forth a code of ethics which, among other things, requires the Commissioners to perform their duties impartially and diligently and in doing so to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. In addition, RSA 363:12 holds staff to the same high standards of fidelity and diligence that apply to the Commissioners and provides for disciplinary action against personnel for unprofessional conduct. Fidelity and diligence are broadly defined concepts which require a strict and continuing faithfulness to duty and a persevering level of care in fulfilling that duty.
Pursuant to RSA 363:17-a, the Commission is the arbiter between the interests of the customers and the interests of the regulated utilities and, therefore, is charged with maintaining the public trust. Accordingly, no employee of the Commission should knowingly act in any way that might reasonably be expected to create an impression or suspicion among the public that an employee may be engaging in conduct that violates that trust.
In addition all New Hampshire state employees and officers, including Commissioners and Staff, are subject to the ethical requirements set out in a number of other statutes, specifically: RSA Chapter 15-B (gifts, honorariums and expense reimbursement); RSA 21-G:21-35 (executive branch code of ethics); and RSA Chapter 640 (corrupt practices). See also RSA 21-I:52 (conflict of interest by classified employees, etc.) Commission employees are expected to familiarize themselves with the provisions of these statutes, linked below, and to seek advice prior to embarking on a potentially unlawful/unethical course of conduct. In particular, Staff is cautioned to seek guidance before accepting gifts, employment, or any form of remuneration (other than from family and close friends), or any conduct that may give rise to a conflict of interest.
An important focus of an employee’s ethical duty concerns impartiality and relates principally to four overlapping areas of concern, namely, Information, Investments, Influence and Employment. With respect to these areas, four admonitions apply:
(1) Do not use confidential information to personal advantage or to the detriment of another;
(2) Do not enrich one’s self or others through the misuse of one’s position;
(3) Do not allow one party to unfairly gain an advantage over another party or use one’s position for personal favors; and
(4) Do not misuse one’s position to gain employment for one’s self or others.
There are two common sense rules, one procedural and the other substantive, which undergird all ethical conduct. They are:
(1) When in doubt about a particular situation seek appropriate guidance; and
(2) Do not engage in any conduct that feels wrong or is contrary to one’s own moral compass.
III. METHOD AND GOALS
The general principles and the following set of ethical considerations are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, the considerations, combined with periodic training sessions for agency members, constitute the framework for an educational program. Training sessions are held periodically and agency members are required to attend at least one session in each calendar year.
The ethics education program established by the Commission is designed to reinforce the importance of adhering to ethical requirements and principles and invest agency members in the process of thinking critically and applying an ethical analysis to situations that confront them. The ultimate goal of this effort is to encourage sound decision making, to create an awareness of the ethical implications of situations, and to foster an ethical approach to the resolution of particular dilemmas.
IV. ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
- Honor all proper confidences.
- Abstain from public and private comment that might unfairly prejudice a party or prejudge a proceeding.
- Commissioners and designated decisional employees shall avoid ex parte communications. See RSA 363:12, III, RSA 363:34 and RSA 541-A:36.
- Perform all written and oral assignments and other duties in accordance with recognized academic and professional standards.
- Commissioners and Staff shall not engage in business or financial dealings that would affect the handling of a matter before the Commission or call into question one’s participation in such a business venture.
- Commissioners shall not hold any direct investments in, or advise others regarding, entities regulated by the Commission. Mutual funds and like indirect investments are permissible investments for Commissioners and Staff.
- Staff members are encouraged to have no direct investments in entities regulated by the Commission.
1. As part of the hiring process, prospective Staff shall disclose any such investments and affirm in writing that such holdings will not influence the performance of their duties.
2. The Commission reserves the right to refuse employment to applicants on the basis of their holdings or to require divestiture as a condition of employment.
3. Staff members already employed by the Commission shall disclose any direct investments in entities regulated by the Commission and shall affirm in writing that such holdings do not influence the performance of their duties. However, the Commission reserves the right to require divestiture as a condition of continued employment in cases where recusal renders the employee unable to substantially perform his or her duties.
- Staff members are prohibited from voluntarily acquiring direct investments in entities regulated by the Commission.
- Commissioners and Staff members shall abide by all relevant financial reporting rules.
- Refuse all gifts, including invitations to conferences, meals, etc., which may reasonably be inferred to have been offered for the purpose of influencing the discharge of one’s duties or which would result in a pecuniary benefit being derived from any person appearing or likely to appear before the Commission.
- Do not use one’s position to extract any advantage or to influence others, within or without the Commission, to act for one’s personal benefit.
- Inform one’s supervisor or a member of the Commission’s Ethics Board of all relationships that could reasonably be construed as creating an environment of bias.
- Commissioners and Staff members shall abide by all relevant financial reporting rules, including the reporting requirements for honorariums and expense reimbursements under RSA Chapter 15-B.
- Do not accept outside employment or responsibilities that would affect one’s impartiality or undermine one’s diligence.
- Do not misuse one’s position to gain subsequent employment for one’s self or others.
- Inform one’s supervisor or a member of the Ethics Board of any employment contact with, or any offer made by, any person affiliated with an entity which is regulated by the Commission in any respect. The purpose of such disclosure is to enable the Commission to determine whether an employee should be recused from working on a matter before the Commission.
- Consistent with RSA 363:12-b, the Commissioners, Executive Director, General Counsel, and Directors of Electric, Gas and Water, and Telecommunications are considered to be prohibited by RSA 363:12-b from accepting employment with any utility under the control of the Commission until one year after becoming separated from the Commission.
- Government attorneys are held to an additional strict standard of conduct by the Code of Professional Responsibility especially as it applies to successive government and private employment.
V. CONSEQUENCES AND REMEDIES
Generally speaking, an ethics policy is not simply a list of prohibited activities but may consist of required activities, prohibited activities and activities that require disclosure. When an employee engages in prohibited conduct or fails to perform required conduct, there is a range of consequences and discipline that corresponds to the severity of the transgression.
Failure to make a required disclosure may also trigger the full range of consequences from counseling to termination and criminal charges. When an employee properly honors a requirement to make disclosure there are also a variety of options. Most typically, the fact of disclosure will permit some conduct or relationship or result simply in the disqualification or recusal of an employee from participation in a particular matter. However, the possibility does exist, in the extreme, that an employee’s conduct or circumstances may result in a series of disqualifications that may so impair the employee’s ability to perform his or her job as to ultimately merit disciplinary action or termination of employment.
VI. ETHICS BOARD
The Commission designates an Ethics Board which is responsible for the day-to-day application of the Ethics Policy; this may include the implementation of the ethics training program at the request of the Chairman of the Commission. In creating and presenting training programs, the Ethics Board will seek input from the entire agency to identify areas of concern or confusion and focus its efforts accordingly.
The Ethics Board also serves as a sounding board regarding specific ethical questions brought to it on a case-by-case basis. Other resources regarding answers to ethical questions include the Executive Branch Ethics Committee established by RSA 21-G:29-33 and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office. Ultimately, however, rulings on the propriety of a specific action, including the permission to perform a specific act or the imposition of sanctions pertaining to any act committed, shall be made by the Chairman of the Commission.
As a result of the sometimes conflicting roles confronting the Commission and its Staff, difficult subjective judgments as to proper conduct may arise. The essential conflict stems from the need in varying situations to act as, among other things, an advocate, an unbiased arbiter, an informed adviser, an aggressive investigator or a forthright mediator.
Because of these multiple roles, Staff may appear to be an ally of a utility in one instance and an opponent of a utility the next. As a result of numerous such experiences over time, Commissioners and Staff must therefore scrutinize their conduct to be assured that they are fair and even handed, neither too familiar nor too adversarial.
Further complications may infuse the relationships between the regulator and the regulated as a result of the ongoing need for interaction and the sharing of information in blended professional and social situations. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the benefits to the regulatory process and to the public interest which derive from the maintenance of good working relationships. In the context of these many requirements, the Commission endeavors to influence ethical behavior through education and by requiring the highest standards of professional and personal decorum in the conduct of the State’s business.