Arizona GOP House candidate took funds from utility with a history of political meddling

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Matt Gress has deep ties to the parent company of Arizona Public Services, which spent millions to influence state elections.

Matt Gress, a Republican candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives, received nearly $15,000 from Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the parent company of Arizona Public Services, the largest electric utility in the state.

According to reporting by the Phoenix New Times, APS executives worked to kill competition from clean energy companies and supported APS-friendly candidates in the race for the Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities in Arizona.

Gress, who is running for one of two open seats in the highly competitive new 4th Legislative District, is a former public school teacher and is serving as Gov. Doug Ducey's budget director. He is running against Democrat Laura Terech and Republican Maria Syms.

APS has a long history of large donations to political candidates and office holders in pursuit of its interests. But in 2013, Jeff Guldner, the company's senior vice president of customers and regulation, claimed the company was not interested in influencing political outcomes.

"Getting involved in Commission elections? Unbelievably high risk," the Phoenix New Times said he had told a reporter that year. "We don't tell employees who to vote for or try to influence elections."

But while the company may not have pressured its employees in their political activities, it did try to influence elections, the New Times noted, in particular the 2014 and 2016 Corporation Commission races in which its preferred candidates prevailed.

In 2019, when Guldner took over as CEO of APS, the utility was under fire following the death of a customer after her power was disconnected and facing accusations of rampant political spending by his predecessor.

2019 subpoena from a Corporation commissioner produced voluminous documents revealing the extent of APS' political expenditures, and a report by the watchdog Energy and Policy Institute found that APS had influenced the Commission through hidden donations to candidates via third parties, giving some $26 million between 2013 and 2017 to charities directly, not through its foundation.

"That means those financial connections were hidden when those groups intervened on APS' behalf, such as by supporting its rate increases before the Commission, opposing an increase in Arizona's renewable energy standard, and helping APS public relations efforts," the report said.

In January, Matt Gress told the Arizona Republic he wouldn't accept lobbyist donations during the legislative session. But then he did exactly that: According to the Arizona Mirror, the first 2022 finance report for his campaign showed that he received $13,000 all told from 24 registered lobbyists. He raised a total of $183,000 in the first quarter of 2022.

Gress' largest contribution from an individual came from Guldner. Gress told the Arizona Mirror that Guldner's donation meshes with his claim not to be taking lobbyists' donations: "He's a leader within multiple business organizations, and the CEO of one of the largest employers in the state. No one thinks of Jeff as a lobbyist who is spending his days under the Capitol dome influencing legislation. The fact that he filed paperwork out of an abundance of caution doesn't change my view."

And yet, as the Mirror reported, Guldner seeks to influence legislators to further the interests of his company — and is one of several APS executives registered as an authorized lobbyist for Pinnacle West Capital Corporation. Gress also received $1,200 from Jessica Pacheco, a former APS vice president of external affairs, who was appointed by Ducey to the Arizona Board of Regents, the body which governs the state's university system, in 2019.

As the multitude of documents that the Corporation Commission subpoenaed from APS revealed, Pacheco, working with Guldner, was the driving force behind APS' efforts to get its preferred individuals elected to the Corporation Commission.

Pacheco was also allegedly behind a suggested $4.3 million scheme in 2009 to damage the reputation of the commission by promoting fake reports suggesting that state regulators were hurting utility customers. Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic noted last year that this was at a time when two Democrats had been elected to the commission and discussion of the use of renewable energy was on the rise — neither of which made APS happy.

In 2014, as vice president of state and local affairs at APS, Pacheco directed $10 million through two dark money nonprofits to seat two Republicans on the Commission.

In 2019 Pinnacle West Capital Corporation spent $32 million to defeat Proposition 127. The ballot initiative would have required utility companies to generate half of their power from renewable sources by 2030. The proposition was voted down 68.6%-31.4%.

Bret Fanshaw, campaign director of Environment Arizona's "Go Solar" campaign, told ABC 15 Arizona: "There's no question Arizonans want cleaner air and a healthier environment. We can see the effects of climate change around us in rising temperatures, dangerous wildfires and continual drought. But we have more work to do to turn our air and water into priorities at the ballot box."

APS states on its website, "Our vision is to create a sustainable energy future for Arizona, while serving our customers with clean, reliable and affordable energy."

In the "Water, Air and Energy" section, Gress' website says he supports "research into future innovations that save water and reduce emissions."

Neither Gress nor APS returned requests for comment.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.