The state’s top utilities regulator helped craft a solar energy bill from which her son’s solar development firm stood to benefit.
Ann Berwick, chair of the state Department of Public Utilities, attended at least two negotiating meetings this spring at which her son, Dan Berwick, a vice president and lobbyist for Borrego Solar Systems Inc., served as a lead negotiator on behalf of the solar industry in Massachusetts. Those talks were aimed at reaching a compromise bill that would boost solar generation in Massachusetts through financial incentives and other measures, a top priority for the solar-development industry during the past legislative sessions.
Ann Berwick is the wife and Dan Berwick the son of Don Berwick, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Lobbying records filed with the Secretary of State’s office also show that Dan Berwick, 35, and other solar industry officials met with his mother and public utilities commissioners last year on a solar issue called “net metering,” which allows electric customers to effectively resell surplus energy generated by rooftop solar systems to utilities.
Solar industry firms, including Borrego, have pushed to remove caps on how many large-scale solar projects can participate in net metering, which would make solar power more attractive to commercial and institutional customers and create a potential boon for solar installers.
Eliminating the caps was included in the compromise bill, which was still awaiting action by the Legislature on Thursday. The bill also includes financial incentives to encourage solar development.
Two weeks ago, after the Globe started making inquiries, Ann Berwick recused herself from any further dealings with the legislation. In an interview, Ann Berwick, appointed DPU chairman in 2010 by Governor Deval Patrick, maintained she’s been objective throughout the process.
The DPU had only a “peripheral role” during recent negotiations, acting as a “technical adviser” on regulatory issues, she said. Her dealings with her son were minimal and professional, she added.
Dan Berwick also downplayed his interactions with his mother during recent talks. “We’re careful to respect our professional boundaries,” he said in an interview.
DPU staff members in the spring attended most, if not all, of the more than 20 “working group” meetings that involved officials from the solar industry, the utilities, and the Patrick administration. Expanding solar generation in the state is one of the governor’s priorities.
Ann Berwick attended three of those spring sessions, according to the governor’s office. Her son, representing Borrego and the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, was at two of those meetings.
In a statement, Patrick administration spokeswoman Amy Mahler noted that Ann Berwick first filed a “disclosure of appearance of conflict of interest” relating to her son in February 2011, eight months after she was appointed DPU chair. After taking part in the legislative negotiations this spring, Ann Berwick decided to file another disclosure form July 18, after an administration attorney consulted with the Massachusetts Ethics Commission on Berwick’s behalf.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a nonprofit government watchdog group, said it appears Ann Berwick followed all state ethics laws by filing disclosures about her relationships with her son and his solar industry ties.
Participants in the negotiations also defended the Berwicks’ involvement in talks.
The DPU had only a ‘peripheral role’ during bill negotiations, chair Ann Berwick said, and her dealings with her son were minimal and professional.
“Those negotiations were conducted with the utmost integrity by all parties,” said Ron Gerwatowski, a senior vice president at National Grid and the utility’s point man on the bill. He added that Ann Berwick’s role was minimal.
But Representative Matthew Beaton, Republican of Shrewsbury, said the Berwicks’ professional and family ties are troubling. Beaton, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, was not part of the negotiations on the bill.
“There’s a general concern when there’s people involved in negotiations with such close family relationships,” he said. “At the very least, it raises questions about the transparency of the process.”
Under the compromise bill, the state would increase the amount of solar energy generation in Massachusetts from 400 megawatts to 1,600 megawatts, enough electricity to power 240,000 homes.
Borrego Solar has been a major developer of large-scale solar projects in Massachusetts, including installing solar systems at Harvard University, Boston College High School, Assumption College, and on municipal properties across the state.
In the past, Borrego has participated in the state’s financial incentive programs designed to boost solar development, the governor’s office said. The company, headquartered in San Diego, employs 50 people in Massachusetts.Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.