Mueser Questions Hebert's Objectivity in Alabama Project

Environmental activist Anne Marie Mueser, taking her battle against Sonat's northern Alabama extension one step further, has accused Commissioner Curt Hebert Jr. of potentially compromising his impartiality in the case by corresponding with the pipeline and other supporters of the project. She suggested that Hebert, who voted for an amended certificate for the Sonat project last week, should have considered recusing himself from the case [see related story].

In an Oct. 21 letter to Hebert, she questioned the commissioner's objectivity in the wake of his "thank you" letters to officials of Sonat and two Alabama utilities in which he wrote that, while he couldn't comment on the merits of the case, he felt "very strongly" about the issues the parties raised and would "carefully consider" their points.

"Your somewhat unusual correspondence with the applicant [Sonat] and two supporting parties remains unexplained and discomforting...and presents potential questions about your continuing objectivity" in the case, wrote Mueser, chairman of the GASP Coalition, which represents landowners.

But for Hebert, sending "generic" letters to those who write him is "customary and actually good protocol as a commissioner...I've always done that and will continue to do so. It doesn't show any prejudice whatsoever because it is a generic letter." He said he included his correspondence with the parties in the Sonat case file to avoid any concerns about violating ex parte rules. Hebert didn't think serving copies of his letter to all parties in the proceeding was necessary, as Mueser had suggested.

In response to Mueser's critical letter, Hebert's staff on Oct. 23 sent her "the same [thank-you] letter that they sent the others...exactly word for word," she told NGI. Hebert said he also included this letter in the Sonat case file. "But this commissioner doesn't get it. It is not appropriate for a sitting commissioner to be corresponding with an applicant or any active parties to a contested proceeding," including herself. "It's just off the wall. I'm a veteran of the Iroquois [proceedings]. And I have never seen anything quite as bizarre as this."

Should he have recused himself from the Sonat case? "If his letter to the two utilities and to the applicant were some sort of a hidden signal that 'Don't worry folks I'm with you,' absolutely he should [have recused] himself. But I can't get into his head," Mueser said. "If Commissioner Hebert thinks that I am going to drop this issue, which I think has to do with the integrity of the process, I will not. And sending me the same letter just doesn't cut it." Susan Parker

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