Conspiracy theory puts NRG on the grassy knoll

December 6, 2009

San Antonio Express-News

CPS Energy’s longest-serving board trustee, Steve Hennigan, hasn’t actually given me a copy of his nine-page "not so far-fetched theory document," but we spoke at length Friday night and Saturday afternoon about what’s in it as he fights to keep his board seat and remain a major player at the municipal utility.

"I’m not a conspiracy theorist," said Hennigan, a credit union executive by day and an unmistakably nice man.

Conspiracy theory, nevertheless, is making the rounds these days in one of those "truth stranger than fiction" scenarios as business and civic leaders ask what went wrong with a multibillion-dollar plan to expand the South Texas Project nuclear facility, the source of 30 percent of the city’s current energy usage.

The finger-pointing has now turned outward. Hennigan and others say CPS’ merchant power partner, NRG Energy, engineered a complex sequence of events that undermined years of CPS work to convince the City Council and ratepayers of San Antonio that nuclear expansion was the best path to energy security.

Others think the plotline is simpler: CPS executives were caught in their own web of deceit after withholding information from elected officials, the media and the public that showed nuclear expansion could cost $4 billion more than advertised by the utility.

Hennigan has watched this deal unfold from the very beginning, so give him his due: Maybe his "theory document" will prove convincing in time and even become a big-screen thriller.

Someone call Oliver Stone. George Clooney, too. We’ll need a paranoid Hollywood director and a great actor: a shrewd, well-connected lawyer who convinces us that NRG undermined its own partner, the one with the coveted bond rating and the guaranteed ratepayer base and cash flow.

I might wait for Netflix. If you think of the weekend as a bathroom break, the next big scenes unfold Monday, when the CPS board meets. CPS board meetings, of course, are top secret, and you and I lack proper clearance. But this one could include the forced resignation of board Chairwoman Aurora Geis (Julia Roberts?), and the board will receive the much-anticipated investigative report into CPS executives who covered up the troubling $4 billion differential.

The real-life character in this drama is Frank Burney, a familiar and well-regarded San Antonio lawyer and lobbyist, a strong supporter of Mayor Julián Castro hired by NRG to represent it before the city. Burney, acting on authority from NRG, tipped Castro’s staff to Toshiba’s real price tag for nuclear expansion after his client grew perplexed with CPS’ continued failure to come clean.

Far from conspiring to undermine CPS, the NRG team worried that a "keep going" $400 million bond vote by the City Council, followed by tardy disclosure of the real cost, would send the project into a political tailspin.

That’s happened anyway. And that’s where the conspiracy theorists come in.

Whodunits are always entertaining. You can choose to watch the movie, or you can opt for reality, which is simple: Burney acted in the interest of the mayor he supports and ratepayers who simply can’t afford nuclear expansion a la Toshiba.

It’s a reality that’s far less intriguing than the fictionalized treatment, but that’s life, isn’t it? And that’s why we have the movies, to distract us from our real-world burdens.

Robert Rivard is the editor of the Express-News. E-mail him at rrivard(at) Or follow him on Twitter at @editorrivard.

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