You say ‘review,’ I say ‘audit’: Either way, the Iron Range is getting bamboozled

As reported, the Office of the Legislative Auditor is spending two months reviewing two loans totaling $9.5 million given by Iron Range Resources to a collection of lobbyists and lawyers calling themselves “Excelsior Energy.” Isn’t that kind of like an audit? Apparently there’s a difference. Anyway, the Hibbing Daily Tribune followed up on my post yesterday with its own story on this coal gas drama unfolding the Iron Range. Here’s Mike Jennings’s lede graphs:

ST.PAUL — The Minnesota Legislative Auditor’s office is looking into a complaint raised about money loaned by Iron Range Resources (IRR) to Excelsior Energy, which is seeking regulatory approval to build a coal-gasification power plant on the Iron Range.

The records review is apparently based on questions and concerns raised earlier this year by Citizens Against the Mesaba Project (CAMP), a citizens’ group that is working to defeat Excelsior’s proposed Mesaba Energy Project. The project would initially produce 603 megawatts of power, and the company’s preferred site for it is near Taconite.

Brad White, a manager of financial audits for the auditor’s office said, Tuesday that his division is conducting “a preliminary assessment of a complaint” but would not proceed to a formal investigation unless it finds some “point of financial concern.” White said his office had requested records from the IRR and would inform both the IRR and the Legislative Audit Commission, probably by late July or early August, whether it would proceed to a formal investigation.

The story goes on to quote Citizens Against the Mesaba Project co-chair Charlotte Neigh, who detailed some of the dicier practices used by Excelsior to shuttle this money around (Read the story). Rep. Tom Anzelc, who joined the Iron Range Resources board after these loans questioned the wisdom of issuing them in the first place. He also pointed out that we, the people, are unlikely to ever see this money again.

The kicker though was the reaction of Excelsior co-poobah Tom Micheletti to the story.

[Micheletti] said CAMP’s tactics could prove costly to Minnesota taxpayers.

“And it just seems to me that we’re coming close to a time when they’ve turned over every rock that they can think of to find some dirt on us,” Micheletti said.

“There’s nothing to hide, and I’m sure that the auditor’s going to find that there’s nothing in this,” he said.

What an absolute insult to the intelligence of Iron Range citizens. Waste of taxpayer dollars? This man spent most of that money on law firms in the Cities in an effort to raise more money from federal taxpayers to build a power plant that isn’t needed, as clean as promised or likely to function efficiently. And he’s going to get rich — fat, stinking rich — off the people of the Iron Range, even if the plant is never built. And he’s decrying any question about where this money is going as a waste of taxpayer dollars? That’s so funny it’s just not funny.

Oh, and you don’t have to turn over rocks to find dirt with this crowd. Julie Jorgenson’s (Micheletti’s wife and co-poobah) second-to-last company NRG literally rattled apart in the California deregulation scandal of the late 1990s very shortly after she left. That was public, but never discussed, when the IRR gave out the loan. Nor were the circumstances of Micheletti’s departure from Minnesota Power and Xcel respectively. Who are these people and what have they done to deserve so much of the people’s money and attention? That would have been a great question to ask SEVEN YEARS AGO. Now we’re chest-high in political sewage.

Let’s run through this again:

  • Excelsior Energy has never produced a single kilowatt of power; it is comprised of lawyers and lobbyists who worked for power companies in the past … companies that now want nothing to do with them or their new company.
  • This “company” came into existence because of these original Iron Range Resources loans. These loans were the original sin that allowed Excelsior to set up shop and (legally) trade money and promises for favors at the federal level. All the “good news” you see on local TV news about this project is contingent on having the government mandate that power companies buy their overpriced, unreliable electricity. It’s like if I pointed a gun at my neighbors and ordered them to buy lemonade from my kid’s lemonade stand at $5 a glass.
  • At the time of the IRR loans, Excelsior was promising job creation that was unrealistic to even a casual observer of the energy industry. Our elected officials at the time asked few questions and dropped the ball. Now everyone — Democrats and Republicans — have their arms caught in this wringer and no one knows what to do … except the people fighting this and the Micheletti gang.

It’s time to take sides. I have put so much thought into this never-ending issue that it hurts. I am pro-development in general but this project makes the Iron Range look stupid and dirty and I will not abide that. Not when there is still hope for a better future for this place and my kids.

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