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Washington-As a congressional committee and a joint U.S.-Canadian governmental task force begin investigations of the East Coast’s massive Aug. 14 electrical blackout, electric utilities and other key industry players are scrambling to line up attorneys in preparation for their unwanted moment in the spotlight. Washington law firms whose partners have spent long years litigating cases at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and lobbying the fine points of energy bills now need to help their clients respond very publicly to tough questions: How did the outage begin? Why did it spread and affect 50 million people? And how can the system be fixed? Managing investigative fallout is only part of the assignment. The major energy bill in Congress-given momentum by the historic blackout-and last week’s filing of a class action against the FirstEnergy Corp. will combine to keep armies of lawyers busy for quite some time. ‘Massive finger pointing’ One veteran Washington energy lobbyist said “massive finger pointing” and public concern about the reliability of the nation’s energy infrastructure will mean significant action for Washington energy, class action and white-collar lawyers and energy lobbyists. “It’s so complicated, and it’s going to go on for so long, that you’re going to see a lot of lobbying and a lot of legal business flowing into Washington,” said this lobbyist, who asked not to be identified. Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, the nation’s fourth largest investor-owned utility holding company, has been a target of the finger pointing and, sources say, is putting together a legal team that will include D.C. specialists in energy law and government investigations. In the past, D.C. lawyers from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman of Washington have handled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission matters for the company. Both Kenneth Jaffe, a partner in the D.C. office of Swidler Berlin, and G. Philip Nowak, a partner in the D.C. office of Akin Gump, say FirstEnergy has not yet decided on the makeup of the legal team. FirstEnergy Senior Vice President and General Counsel Leila Vespoli declined comment through a company spokeswoman. One well-known energy lawyer already working for a key industry member is Linda Gillespie Stuntz, a former deputy secretary of energy under the first President Bush and now a partner in the five-lawyer D.C. energy and environmental firm of Stuntz, Davis & Staffier. Stuntz represents the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a voluntary association of U.S. and Canadian utility companies that tries to keep up the steady flow of power through the continent’s electric wires. Michehl Gent, the council’s president, will be an important witness at hearings called for Sept. 3 and 4 by Rep. W. J. “Billy” Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Tauzin sent a letter on Aug. 19 to 15 utilities and state governmental bodies, asking them to respond to questions about the origins of the blackout. “I will have input into crafting [Gent's] testimony and in responding to the Department of Energy [in its probe of the blackout],” Stuntz said. “As questions have been asked about NERC’s role in the outage, we are working on that.” A key item on the council’s agenda has been to get Congress to upgrade utilities’ voluntary codes of conduct to enforceable rules that, among other things, will tell utilities how to move electricity around the system to contain small disturbances like the ones that may have triggered the outage. This idea is now picking up new support on Capitol Hill. In addition to four years spent crafting and shaping energy policy during the first Bush administration, Stuntz knows the Hill. For six years in the 1980s, she worked for the Republicans on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce as minority counsel. Stuntz left the government in 1993, at the beginning of the Clinton administration and became a founding partner of Stuntz Davis. Some of the other recipients of the Tauzin letter may ultimately have less to worry about than the FirstEnergy Corp., but still need to respond quickly to the congressional and the executive branch inquiries. An official at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based International Transmission Co. said it has no plans to beef up its outside legal team. Larry Bruneel, the company’s D.C.-based vice president, said International Transmission normally looks to two law firms: Detroit-based Dykema Gossett and Stuntz Davis (the same energy boutique that represents NERC ). Dykema Gossett has a 19-lawyer D.C. office. Its roster includes partner D. Biard MacGuineas, who serves as International Transmission’s chief lawyer on regulatory commission matters. He will continue to handle the company’s energy regulatory work, Bruneel said, and Stuntz Davis, which is registered to lobby for the company, will assist in strategic consulting. International Transmission’s strategy, Bruneel said, has been to provide a “fact-based analysis of what happened on our transmission grid.” On Aug. 20, the company released a step-by-step account of why the power failure occurred, claiming that FirstEnergy never informed it of breakdowns that led to the collapse of the International Transmission lines. Although no one has yet determined exactly what caused the blackout, a cascading series of failures evidently began with some of FirstEnergy’s transmission lines and power plants in Ohio. The company serves 4.3 million customers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio and owns seven utility operating companies. It had been criticized before the blackout for not paying enough attention to safety and infrastructure concerns.

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