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Secret messages prompt utilities to ask for review of Cardinal-Hickory transmission line

Utilities that would own the $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line are asking state officials to reconsider the project after learning a former regulator secretly exchanged messages with utility employees before voting to approve the line.

In a filing this week, utilities American Transmission Co. and ITC Midwest asked the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to rescind its 2019 approval of the project and allow the utilities to seek a new permit. The request comes after documents unearthed in a court case show former PSC Commissioner Mike Huebsch regularly communicated over “several years” with an ATC employee, an ITC contractor and others using the encrypted messaging service Signal.

Environmental groups have accused Huebsch of bias in approving the project after discovering through a related court case that Huebsch sought to become CEO of Dairyland Power Cooperative — another utility developing Cardinal-Hickory Creek — just five months after leaving the PSC in early 2020.

A Dane County Judge last month said he’d revoke a permit for the transmission line if opponents could show Huebsch harbored a conflict of interest. In a statement, the utilities said they had “no information” about whether Huebsch’s encrypted messages were related to the Cardinal-Hickory project. The former regulator had maintained “longstanding personal relationships” with those involved, according to the utilities.

“We are aware this information raises concerns about one of the commissioners who granted approval of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project,” according to a statement from ATC President and CEO, Mike Rowe. “We understand the speculation this presents, which is also why we have made this unique request to the PSC and are sharing this information with our employees, our stakeholders and Dane County Circuit Court.”

The revelation could upend the construction schedule for the 345-kilovolt transmission line, which would run 100 miles from Dane County to Dubuque, Iowa. Work is expected to get underway this fall.

The PSC is set to consider ITC and ATC’s request to re-file its application for the transmission line during a meeting on Thursday. The commission is also expected to convene in closed session during its meeting to discuss court cases related to the Cardinal-Hickory project. Project opponents are suing the PSC, along with Huebsch and several federal agencies that approved the project, in federal court.

In a federal court filing Monday, Huebsch said the PSC’s attorneys would no longer be representing him in court challenges, after telling him their interests, “may be adverse.”

An attorney for the utilities told the PSC that it discovered Huebsch was communicating with utility employees when he referenced the Signal app in a text exchange obtained through the discovery process in a court case related to the project. Signal allows users to automatically delete messages, and lawyers for the utilities were “presently uncertain” if messages exchanged on the app could be recovered.

Discovery of the messages comes after documents from a federal court case showed Huebsch had unsuccessfully sought to become Dairyland’s CEO shortly after leaving the PSC. In the months leading up to his departure, Huebsch had voted to approve Cardinal-Hickory and another large Dairyland Project, the Nemadji Trail natural gas plant in Superior.

Critics also accused Huebsch of demonstrating bias by advising the Midcontinent System Operator, or MISO, which regulates the electric grid in the Midwest. Huebsch led the PSC’s deliberations on the Cardinal-Hickory project even as MISO intervened in the case.

Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost, in an order last month, said he’d rescind the PSC’s permit for the transmission line if opponents could prove bias tainted the commission’s decision, saying the “right to an impartial decision maker is fundamental to due process.”

Howard Learner, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, who is leading court cases against the project, said Huebsch’s encrypted messages “undermined” a fair consideration of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project.

“The Wisconsin Attorney General should investigate which Commissioners were engaging in these kinds of inappropriate ex parte communications with the transmission companies and utilities, what they were saying, who knew about it, and when,” Learner said.

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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