Lynn Hargis

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Activist Ally Lynn Hargis
Fighting for Affordable Energy for Americans

When Lynn Hargis stepped into Public Citizen’s Capitol Hill office for the first time two years ago, she got a crash course into what it’s like to work at a nonprofit organization. An attorney accustomed to the luxury of a private law firm, where she had her own office and a secretary, she was suddenly faced with working in a cramped oddly-shaped office with a colleague three feet away.

“I’ve never totally recovered from it,” she told Public Citizen News. “It was rather startling because I always had my own office and suddenly I’m in a tiny nook sharing a shelf. There weren’t even drawers! I’d never worked anywhere that didn’t have drawers for all my papers!”

Still, Hargis had a mission, and coming to Public Citizen was the best avenue for pursuing it. Her goal: Save the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA), the vital consumer protection law that has kept electric rates stable for 70 years. She was so dedicated that she adopted a cat and named him PUHCA in honor of one of the most important statutes ever created in the energy sector.

PUHCA, passed in 1935, guaranteed that local gas and electricity providers were owned by regionally based utility companies not huge nationwide corporations that might have little interest in providing good utility service at reasonable rates. For 70 years, PUHCA protected utility investors and ratepayers, and helped give the United States stable and affordable electricity. PUHCA became important to Hargis after she left law school and worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for 10 years.

From there, she moved on to a private law firm for 17 years and had many clients in the energy industry, most of whom built or financed power plants.

“I learned about PUHCA so I could give them advice,” she said. “The statute was so powerful, so effective, and I realized regulating was a good thing to do and I would find myself telling my clients what they couldn’t do, instead of what they could do.”

One day, as she drove home, she was listening to a program on NPR and heard a guy talking about PUHCA. Her ears perked up, she explained, because “he actually seemed to know what he was talking about.” That person turned out to be Tyson Slocum, the energy research director at Public Citizen. She called him up and asked him if he knew of any opportunities where she could work to save PUHCA. He said ‘why not here?’

Hargis began to feel a conflict of interest at the law firm where she worked, because, she says, she’s a “regulator at heart and a consumer protection person,” So she went to her boss at the law firm and explained her dilemma. He wished her well, offered her a generous severance package, and out the door she went.

Public Citizen was a new world for Hargis. She became a one-woman show: lobbyist, spokesperson, researcher, policy analyst, lawyer, and champion defender of PUHCA. The kicker? She was a volunteer.

“Writing briefs was a whole new experience for me because I didn’t have a secretary,” she said. “I had to write them, staple them and deliver them. That was fun, actually, running down to the SEC with the delivery boys.”

Working in the new environment, she also realized that she needed to speak a new, more accessible language.

“Even the lobbyists who were on our side didn’t know PUHCA that well. It’s such a complex statute. I wrote this white paper on PUHCA but couldn’t even get my colleagues to read it, so I knew I had to try a different approach. That’s how PUHCA for Dummies was born.”

PUHCA for Dummies was her successful attempt to put into plain English why the act was so important. She handed it out to reporters, Hill staffers, members of the public, advocacy groups, coworkers, anyone who would listen. She even made her own signs, which she carried to a Save PUHCA protest outside the Capitol. The sign featured Warren Buffett, who has been on the opposite side of the fence; he’s been fighting to banish PUHCA for years so he can “expand his empire” in the energy sector, Hargis said.

Slocum, who wooed Hargis here two years ago, now shares an office with her. “She’s incredible – it’s like having an encyclopedia on the electricity sector at my finger tips at all time,” he said.

Despite her dedicated efforts, PUHCA was repealed in August under the new energy legislation signed by President Bush.

Hargis is convinced that repeal was a mistake of gargantuan proportion. She predicts, “We’ll see a huge consolidation of the energy sector and control will be held by a few wealthy individuals. There is always a boom before the bust, so large fortunes will be made, but larger fortunes will be lost,” she said. “I think the crash will come in less than 20 years, more serious than 1920s.”

These days when she runs into former colleagues, she feels a little strange. She knows so many people in the energy business, and she doesn’t want them to think of her as an enemy.

“There are good lawyers out there but sometimes they have to work as ‘hired guns’ and there’s something amoral about that,” she said. “They would say to me, ‘PUHCA is a good thing and you’re doing good work to protect it.’ Then I’d read somewhere that they opposed PUHCA on behalf of their clients. They’re not doing what they believe in.

December 16, 2018


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