Lawyers involved in a lawsuit against Central Maine Power Co. want state regulators to discard a letter the utility wrote in response to customers’ complaints over high electricity bills.

CMP filed the confidential letter, written by an official with the utility’s parent company, Avangrid, with the Public Utilities Commission in July. It was framed as a response to an investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram detailing complaints by customers about spikes in their bills following CMP’s introduction of a new billing system in late 2017.

In a cover letter with its filing, CMP said “many of the specific customer stories” in the newspaper “contain factual discrepancies when compared against CMP’s customer records.” The cover letter is public, but the accompanying 37-page document written by Kenneth Farber, Avangrid’s senior counsel, is not.

The story published on June 23 contained a dozen profiles of CMP customers dealing with inexplicably high electricity bills and the hardships many of them encountered.

Peter Murray, the lawyer who filed the objection to the CMP letter, said its confidential nature doesn’t allow customers to respond to the company’s rebuttal of their complaints, or even know which customer accounts the company disputes. Therefore, he said, it shouldn’t be part of the commission’s deliberations. The commission is undertaking an investigation of CMP metering, billing and customer service complaints, as well as a rate hike request.

CMP said in its cover letter that the filing included a recap of customers’ complaints; details on billing and electricity use, payment records and any interactions with the customers; and CMP’s conclusions on the claims. It cites, but does not name, the accounts of 14 customers in the June 23 story and related stories that refer to two other customer accounts.

Murray said CMP hasn’t publicly rebutted the stories in the newspaper or similar accounts told at the PUC’s public hearings in mid-July.

Hundreds of customers have sued CMP over bills that jumped in late 2017 and early 2018, after a new billing system was put in operation. CMP has said it believes a higher rate for electricity – which it delivers but does not generate – and a cold snap are responsible for the higher bills. CMP told the PUC that nearly 100,000 customers saw their bills jump by 50 percent or more from a year earlier, but the lawsuit contends that more than 200,000 additional customers were hit with sharply higher bills.

An independent audit of CMP’s smart meter and billing software systems presented in December 2018  said the skyrocketing electricity bills could not be blamed on the utility’s new billing and metering system, but the company made the situation worse with its poor response to a flood of customer complaints.

In the cover letter to the CMP’s July 19 filing, the company said it would not object to its letter being made part of the public record in the PUC proceedings. CMP’s letter also said  the customers may have waived their rights to confidentiality by sharing their information with the newspaper.

Catharine Hartnett, CMP’s spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the filing was made confidentially because of laws barring the release of individual customers’ data. She didn’t respond further except to say that the company will file a formal response to the PUC on Murray’s motion.

In his filing, Murray noted that CMP, didn’t object to making the document public, but he also said that the company didn’t take any steps to make it public or notify any customers that it had filed information on them with the PUC. He asks that the document be struck from the record and that ratepayers be notified of any information related to them that was part of the CMP filing. The information could then be made public if the customer consents, Murray’s filing said.

Another lawyer involved in the case said CMP’s decision to file the letter confidentially “outrageous.”

Sumner Lipman wrote to the consumer group CMP Ratepayers United that the action represented “an egregious example of a lack of due process … (and) gamesmanship is in its purest form.”

“Whether CMP’s rebuttal was truthful or not, we do not know, but the named individuals certainly have the right to know what CMP is saying about them,” Lipman wrote.

Under PUC rules, CMP has seven days to file a response to the motion to strike its document from the record. Murray then will have three days to reply to that. A PUC hearing examiner will then make a ruling, although he could defer a decision to the full PUC, said Harry Lanphear, the commission’s administrative director.

Murray did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

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