Encrypted messages prompt companies to ask agency to rescind Wisconsin approval for Cardinal-Hickory Creek project

Three transmission companies have asked Wisconsin’s public utility regulatory agency to rescind its approval of a hotly contested high-voltage transmission line and rehear the case.

The request comes after it was discovered in court proceedings that an official who approved the Cardinal Hickory-Creek project was in regular contact with company employees and contractors over the course of several years while the case was under review by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

Now-former Commissioner Michael Huebsch was among the three state officials in 2019 who unanimously approved the $492 million project for the construction of a 102-mile line from Dubuque County to Dane County, Wis.

Three companies, ITC Midwest, American Transmission Co. and Dairyland Power Cooperative, are undertaking the joint venture.

Attorneys representing ATC and ITC informed the PSCW and the Dane County Circuit Court where one of four lawsuits challenging the project has been filed by environmental groups, that “ATC and ITC discovered information indicating that former Commissioner Huebsch engaged in regular communications with an ATC employee, a former independent contractor for ITC and other individuals over several years, including during the proceeding.”

They said Huebsch used an application known as Signal, which enables users to send private, encrypted messages that can be automatically deleted after a preset time period.

“We have no information that these Signal communications were related to the project,” the attorneys said in their request. “However, given the retention settings of the Signal application, we are presently uncertain whether these messages can be fully recovered.”

The attorneys said they are “working expeditiously to retrieve these communications” and have subpoenaed the ATC employee who communicated with Huebsch. They requested that Dane County Judge Jacob Frost temporarily stay all deadlines and convene a status conference within two weeks.

“While we are disappointed by these recent developments, they have no bearing on the state’s need for the project, which is vital to ensuring a cleaner, more reliable and more affordable energy future for Wisconsin,” the attorneys said.

Multiple attempts to reach Huebsch on Monday were unsuccessful.

Dairyland submitted a separate filing, indicating that its employees had no involvement in the matter but concurred with ATC and ITC’s request.

The information came to light as part of the legal discovery process after Frost permitted the opponents of the project — the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and Dane and Iowa counties — to question Huebsch about his actions prior to the PSCW’s approval.

The opponents have argued that Huebsch should have recused himself from proceedings, alleging that he engaged in ex parte communications regarding the project.

In a separate federal case, the plaintiffs also discovered that Huebsch applied to become Dairyland’s CEO shortly after leaving the commission in February 2020. He ultimately was not hired, and his position on the PSCW was filled by Tyler Huebner.

Huebsch also served on the advisory council of the regional utility planning organization that first proposed the project.

Howard Learner, an attorney for the opponents, said the discovery of Huebsch’s communications indicates the process by which the transmission line was approved by the PSCW was “fundamentally flawed.”

“This is an extraordinary development and extraordinary belated admission of ATC and ITC,” Learner said. “It’s clear that Commissioner Huebsch is biased or had clearly an appearance of bias.”

Frost recently ruled that he would revoke the state’s approval of the project if it was determined that one of the three commissioners had a conflict of interest.

Groundbreaking for the Wisconsin section was scheduled for October. Construction on the line already is underway in Iowa, but an ITC spokesperson declined to answer questions regarding the impact of Monday’s filings on that portion of the project.

The companies jointly declined to comment on the developments but directed the Telegraph Herald to a press release issued shortly after filing their request with the court and PSCW.

“The individuals involved in this situation have maintained longstanding personal relationships with each other; however, we are aware this information raises concerns about one of the commissioners who granted approval of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Project,” said ATC President and CEO Mike Rowe in a statement. “We understand the speculation this presents, which is also why we have made this unique request to the PSCW and are sharing this information with our employees, our stakeholders and Dane County Circuit Court.”

PSCW spokesperson Matt Sweeney said the agency is reviewing the companies’ request and has not determined when it will respond.

He said the PSCW is unaware of another instance within the past 10 years in which utilities have requested the state rescind approval and rehear a project.