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To Tell The Truth
Published on Wednesday, July 4, 2001 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
To Tell The Truth
by Steve Elliott
 
DUKE ENERGY, the big East Coast power company, has decided to buy newspaper ads to deny claims made by it's former workers of illegal activities. It's a rather odd step. After all, it's not like the workers are taking out ads trying to convince people that they are telling the truth. I wonder if that would have worked for me when I got caught shoplifting at Kmart 15-plus years ago.

I could have taken out an advertisement in the school newspaper reading, "Local Student Framed by Overzealous Security Staff in Suburban Mall!" I could have brought the paper home and showed it to my father. "Look dad," I would have said. "I'm innocent." To which he would have promptly responded by kicking my ass and grounding me for the rest of my life.

Duke's advertisements are a reaction to allegations made by former employees at the energy plant. The workers, Glenn Johnson, Jimmy Olkjer, and Ed Edwards, testified before a state senate committee investigating whether power generators gouged California by illegally manipulating power supply.

The men were all contract employees until April at Duke's Chula Vista plant. They charge that Duke intentionally manipulated energy production in order to drive up prices, operating the plants, "like a yo-yo." Duke executives recognize, probably correctly, that if they can turn the tide of public opinion, the government will be less likely to act against the company. Of course if the lights are out and the TV isn't working, many people won't be able to see Duke's well-planned media onslaught.

But I have another idea, one that I think would work better. For starters, share the evidence. Duke needs to give permission to the California Independent System Operator to release all documents related to the allegations.

Duke is claiming the ISO ordered the supply changes, but the ISO is not allowed to answer questions due to a confidentiality agreement it has with the supplier. It's hard for the public to trust a company that shreds the evidence.

Second, Duke could just make a reasonable profit. When your profit margins are up 300 percent, people are not going to believe that you are just doing what you need to do to get by. Instead they're going to think you are a big, greedy, evil company with no concern whatsoever for the public welfare.

Duke claimed recently that a large proportion of what it billed California is a credit premium justified by utility debts. But Edwards and Johnson testified to elaborate parties thrown by Duke to celebrate the company's enormous profits.

"They said they made more money in the first few months [of 1999] than they had forecasted for a year," one of the men noted.

This is all very reminiscent of my early lesson in shoplifting. The best way not to get caught stealing is not to steal. But perhaps the Duke execs have been getting away with so much for so long that they don't know how to stop.

What I am proposing to Duke, in short, is the ridiculous notion that if you want the public to trust you, you should try telling the truth. Because, really, why would these employees lie? It will certainly save money on advertising – the San Francisco Chronicle received $62,178 for the Duke ad.

Or maybe I should just fly my father in from Chicago and have him kick some ass.

Steve Elliott is a Stegner fellow at Stanford and author of the forthcoming novel A Life Without Consequences. E-mail him at nowhere500@yahoo.com.

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