Pritzker’s Pandemic: Utility Shutoffs & Conflicts of Interest

By Allan Max Axelrod, #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign Lead

Pritzker’s Utility Shutoffs

Utility shutoffs are a pandemic safety risk, and utility service continuation is explicitly enumerated as a priority in the Bush-era 2007 Congressional Research Service’s “Pandemic Influenza: An Analysis of State Preparedness and Response Plans.” In the 2nd half of September alone, over 16,000 households (over 35,000 people) were disconnected by utility corporations. In the last week of September, according to WCIA, Ameren Illinois’ 6,543 residential disconnections for nonpayment occurred in the last week of September, alone. Commonwealth Edison disconnected over 9,000 households in the same month, presumably starting the same day as Ameren Illinois as they both agreed to the Illinois Commerce Commissions’ means-tested and voluntary moratorium. This moratorium was adopted just 3 days after Governor Pritzker’s September 18th press conference was disrupted, and the moratorium’s gaps have had grave consequences.

Following 1.5 months of utility shutoffs, Illinois now leads all states in the country in the 7 day average of new coronavirus cases, despite being the 6th largest in population. By the time of this publication, Illinois will have matched or exceeded the peak 7-day average of new coronavirus cases of California. As states resumed utility shutoffs, the 7 day average of new coronavirus cases increased in the states affected. West Virginia had utility shutoffs resume on July 1st, with utilities reportedly being encouraged to disconnect by the Public Service Commission of West Virginia itself.

After July 1, the PSC said it wants utilities who did suspend shutoffs to restart the process of terminating services for customers who have fallen behind on payments.”

West Virginia’s 7 day average of new coronavirus cases more than tripled in the space of 2 weeks afterwards. September 16th saw Indiana’s state’s largest utility resume utility shutoffs, affecting 850,000 households or 32% of the households in Indiana. Just 2 weeks later, coronavirus exponentially grew in Indiana.

The role of utility shutoffs in pandemic safety in Illinois is just as stark. Since October 1st, the Coronavirus caseload, positivity rate, hospitalizations, intensive care admissions, ventilators, and deaths all increased alarmingly. The most striking data as-yet examined comes from the Sangamon County Health Department, where the number of cases and the positivity rate steeply climbed just as Ameren Illinois shutoff over 300 Springfield households in the last week of September.

Despite utilities being crucial to pandemic safety, Pritzker mentioned on September 21st that he was balancing interests, like that of landlords. A small landlord publicly responded that keeping utilities on helps tenants and landlords. Pritzker has not used this excuse since. Instead, he did not respond to a request for comment by The Intercept for their October 24th piece and then was dishonest with local media in Champaign who fact checked Pritzker outright on October 27th. At this point, Pritzker more than knew that utility shutoffs were a grave concern to Illinoisans. Pritzker even has the ability to unilaterally stop utility shutoffs using point 12 of Illinois’ emergency powers statute just as he’s done with eviction moratoria.

The 46 organizations of the $0.00 all-volunteer and statewide campaign, #NoAmerenShutoffs, fought to stop shutoffs from happening altogether. The #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign includes affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers, Communist Party USA, Democratic Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Food & Water Watch, Green Party, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Our Revolution, Sunrise Movement, and Young Democratic Socialists of America. #NoAmerenShutoffs organizations won 3 voluntary statewide utility shutoffs moratoria, buying Illinoisans valuable time, and continues to fight for a statewide non-means-tested and mandatory moratorium.

At the date of this article, #NoAmerenShutoffs has passed resolutions through the Macon, Champaign and McDonough Champaign County all calling on the Governor to stop utility shutoffs. The #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign passed a resolution, unanimously, through City of Urbana also calling on the Governor to stop utility shutoffs. There is now a letter released with signatories including members of the Illinois General Assembly and local officials all calling on Governor Pritzker to act. A water shutoffs moratorium as well as a tabling of a business deal with Ameren Illinois has occurred at the behest of the #NoAmerenShutoffs campaign. All of these updates and more are available at the #NoAmerenShutoffs Compilation Dispatch document here.

Pritzker’s Conflicts of Interest

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway announced a business deal 13 years ago to purchase Marmon Group. While the original sale amount was widely reported as being $4.5 billion, the final amount was $6.3 billion. That money was split 11 ways between the adult Pritzker cousins at the time, including Governor Pritzker. The amount that Pritzker received from Buffett is not clear, but the average amount for each of his cousins is roughly ⅙ of his current net worth without accounting for inflation.

In mid-September, Pritzker began to allow pandemic utility shutoffs in Illinois. Pritzker’s pandemic utility shutoffs had nothing to do with the economic precarity of Illinois’ utility corporations. For example, Ameren Corporation’s profits per share in quarter 2 of fiscal year 2020, at the zenith of official unemployment numbers in Illinois, were 36% higher than the same quarter as the year before. Ameren Corporation’s profits per share in quarter 3 of fiscal year 2020 kept pace with the year before as well. For all of quarter 2 and all but the last week of quarter 3, Ameren Corporation was not shutting off power in Illinois.

Ameren Corporation is, perhaps reluctantly, both a customer and competitor of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Indeed the following correlations are particularly suggestive as to both corporations’ benefit to Pritzker’s pandemic utility shutoffs. During the #NoAmerenShutoffs fight with Ameren Corporation, the stocks of both Berkshire Hathaway and Ameren Corporation reached a peak on August 11th and 12th. August 11th was the day that Ameren Corporation was expected to resume utility shutoffs in Illinois as they had in Missouri the week before on August 3rd.

After #NoAmerenShutoffs won an extension to that moratorium through September 1st, both stocks peaked on September 2nd which was the day that Ameren Corporation was again expected to resume utility shutoffs.

Corporate utility shutoffs began in Illinois 2 days after the September 22nd voluntary and means-tested moratorium was announced by the Illinois Commerce Commission which allowed utility shutoffs. Both corporations’ stock leveled off from a decrease in value on that date as well.

It is further worth noting that both corporations has a sharp decline on October 28th in value. The day before this, at Pritzker’s Champaign press conference, Pritzker misrepresented his office’s ability to intervene in utility shutoffs as noted in this report by local media.

The strong and consistent correlation on each of these dates leaves little room as to doubt the benefit that both of these corporations have reaped from Pritzker’s pandemic utility shutoffs while his office has been increasingly hostile to activists bringing attention to this issue.

Troublingly, from Pritzker’s 2017 gubernatorial candidate statement of economic interest, Pritzker has numerous pre-existing financial assets in the utility sector, including Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway corporation whose net worth is over a half-trillion dollars. Without a public disclosure from Pritzker, the exact amount of his holdings in Berkshire Hathaway is not known. Recalling that Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the same corporation whose transaction amounts to Pritzker and each of his cousins between 2007 and 2011 amounts to ⅙ of Pritzker’s net worth, so it is reasonable to assume it is substantial. Despite a semi-blind trust, Pritzker knows what he’s invested in and especially since it relates to his family’s former business, Marmon Group, which was purchased by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. In addition to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway doing business with Ameren Missouri, they also directly own MidAmerican Energy and BHE Renewables in Illinois. All told, according to this year’s Quarter 3 report, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has $90 billion in railroad, utility and energy liability and equity.

There is reason to believe that Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary MidAmerican Energy does not have Illinois resident’s best interest in mind. The first of the #NoAmerenShutoffs moratoria was won after Attorney General Raoul’s previous non-means-tested moratorium on utility shutoffs expired. The moratorium went into effect on August 1st and lasted through September 1st. While corporate utilities such as Ameren Illinois were named in the moratorium, Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy did not agree to the moratorium publicly but admitted or claimed to agree to the moratorium in point 3 of their communications filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission on October 16th. The second moratorium won by #NoAmerenShutoffs extended the moratorium to September 10th. Again, Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy did not publicly agree to the moratorium and appears to use the Illinois Commerce Commission’s letter, unanimously signed by all 5 Democratic-appointed and Republican-appointed commissioners urging for no utility shutoffs, as the reason for not agreeing publicly to the moratorium.

Despite Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy claiming that they had not disconnected any residents, this is not true as shown on the bottom of page 1 of this document. In Pritzker’s November 9th press conference, he specifically mentioned Iowa’s pandemic positivity rate as being a factor affecting coronavirus rates in Region 1 of Illinois as designated by the Illinois Public Health Department’s pandemic planning. Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy is a multi-state business, and utility shutoffs on the border of Illinois is of tantamount relevance to the state of Illinois.

Whether intentional or not, Pritzker has a financial conflict of interest demonstrated by the fluctuating valuation in Illinois utilities in relation to his actions on utility shutoffs. However, the question of intention, itself, is a concerning one. Why would a Governor who claims to be listening to experts, allow utility shutoffs and misrepresent his office’s ability to do so?

This report only scratches the surface and is meant to bring to light the continually concerning reality of Pritzker’s pandemic utility shutoffs and conflicts of interest.

Allan Max Axelrod, #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign Lead
Allan Max Axelrod, #NoAmerenShutoffs Campaign Lead

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