- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich on Friday called the resignation of the state’s top utility regulator while she continues to fight his efforts to remove her from office a “strange legal strategy.”

Brnovich said that while he commends Susan Bitter Smith’s decision to resign on Jan. 4, her efforts to ask the state Supreme Court to find she has no conflict of interest appear disingenuous. Her resignation becomes effective a day before the high court is set to consider the case.

Bitter Smith announced Thursday that she would step down as Arizona Corporation Commission chairman because the case seeking her removal filed by Brnovich was distracting from the commission’s business. The move came after her lawyers told the state Supreme Court she didn’t work for regulated companies as Brnovich alleged.

Brnovich says he’ll reply to her legal arguments and ask the court to withdraw the complaint he filed last month if she has resigned.

“Frankly if she steps down there’s no reason for the court to hear this case,” he said.

Bitter Smith’s lawyers said in their court filing that the cable association Bitter Smith leads, the Southwest Cable Communications Association, and the cable company she lobbies for are not involved in regulated telephone services. The state Constitution bars corporation commissioners from having an interest in or being paid by a regulated company.

“Those are silly arguments,” Brnovich said. “I do think it’s a strange legal strategy that you would file a response and then announce your resignation a day before the arguments are supposed to be heard. It seems a little disingenuous to me.”

Brnovich alleged that Bitter Smith’s employment by the cable industry association and a cable company that sells regulated telephone service is a clear conflict. He said all bundle their services, while Bitter Smith said most are unregulated internet-based phones.

Bitter Smith said at a news conference Thursday that the facts would back up her position. She said groups opposed to the commission brought up the alleged conflict, and noted that no one opposed her 2012 run for office at the time “because there was no conflict.”

Brnovich said he appreciated the seriousness of seeking the removal of a statewide officeholder, who like him is a Republican. But he said the corporation commission is tasked under the Constitution with representing consumers and regulating monopolies, and he must err on the side of protecting the public from conflicts involving commissioners.

“There has to be somebody in the state who is willing to do the hard cases, to do the hard thing, even though it may be challenging personally or professionally, and that’s to hold other public officials accountable,” he added. “And if it’s not the attorney general’s office, who is it?”

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