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Freeman Confirmed as State Power Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

S. David Freeman, accused by Republicans of having gouged Californians during the energy crisis and defended by Democrats as a public servant who tenaciously fought for consumers, was confirmed Monday as chief of the new state public power authority.

Majority Democrats prevailed over Republicans in a party-line 25-23 vote. The tally ended a bruising two-hour debate in which the GOP assailed Freeman’s performance during the energy crisis last year, when he was general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 16, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 228 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong vote--A story in Wednesday’s California section incorrectly reported the Senate vote total by which S. David Freeman was confirmed as chairman of the board of the California Consumer Power and Conservation Financing Authority. The vote was 25 to 13.

“Freeman, as head of the Department of Water and Power, gouged consumers and ripped off taxpayers far more than Enron,” charged Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine.

He likened Freeman to the former Enron chief, Kenneth Lay, whose once high-flying company collapsed in bankruptcy, which led to criminal and other investigations.

Confirmation of Freeman, 76, as chairman of the board of the California Consumer Power and Conservation Financing Authority handed Gov. Gray Davis a victory at a time when the governor’s handling of the energy crisis has become a campaign issue for his reelection opponent, Republican Bill Simon Jr.

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But Democrats, some of whom acknowledged that Freeman had made mistakes in his public power career of four decades, countered that Republicans were misrepresenting and distorting the record in a partisan attempt to weaken Davis.

“The history that has been portrayed here is so full of falsity that I’m shocked,” said Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), a former member of the Los Angeles City Council who worked with Freeman on Los Angeles power issues.

Alarcon conceded that the Los Angeles power department under Freeman had engaged in “overbilling,” but accused Republicans of unfairly trying to paint Freeman as the poster image for California’s failed experiment in electricity deregulation.

Freeman, a nationally recognized expert on public power, served Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter. He was appointed to head the state agency one year ago, after a stint as an advisor to Davis and contract negotiator during the energy crisis. If his confirmation had failed, Freeman would have been turned out of his $220,000-a-year post today.

Freeman, seldom seen in public without his well-worn, white cowboy hat, is a seasoned, wily executive who is known for charming friends and enemies alike with his disarming Texas-Tennessee accent.

In addition to heading up the Los Angeles agency from 1997-2001, when it was on the verge of financial collapse, Freeman also has held top posts at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the New York Power Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority.

In a statement, Freeman expressed gratitude Monday to the Democrats who voted for him. He said he looked forward to “keeping the lights on, electricity costs down ... bringing cleaner energy to the state.”

In Los Angeles, Simon charged that, under Freeman, the Department of Water and Power had been “one of the largest profiteers” in the energy crunch. He said the new state agency should not be led by “one of the state’s biggest price gougers.”

As California survived a handful of blackouts last year, Davis and other Democrats blamed Enron and other out-of-state generators for charging excessive prices as the state’s three major private utilities were collapsing, and the state stepped in to purchase energy on their behalf.

But Republicans, who opposed creating the public power authority, focused on the Department of Water and Power and its sales of surplus electricity to the state. The agency came under scrutiny from several investigative agencies, which criticized its practices but stopped short of charging it with illegal actions.

Senate Leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), author of the bill that created the power authority last year, dismissed Republican comparisons of Freeman with Enron’s Lay as off base. Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove), the Senate’s expert on illegal price gouging and market manipulation, voted for Freeman, saying he believed there was no evidence that Freeman had committed a “misdeed” that would disqualify him.


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