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No mercy rule in theft of gas service, PUC ruling suggests

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission gave Darnell Fassett of Philadelphia an expensive lesson Thursday: When it comes to theft of gas service, there is no mercy rule.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission gave Darnell Fassett of Philadelphia an expensive lesson Thursday: When it comes to theft of gas service, there is no mercy rule.

The PUC, in a unanimous decision, rejected a recommendation that Fassett be allowed to enter an installment plan to pay the $5,541 Philadelphia Gas Works says he owes.

The city-owned utility says the amount is the estimated cost of the natural gas consumed in a house Fassett owns in North Philadelphia, which PGW shut off after discovering in 2013 that it was illegally connected.

"Payment arrangements are not offered on balances that are the result of unauthorized usage," PGW lawyer Graciela Christlieb argued in a brief filed last year with PUC Administrative Law Judge Angela T. Jones in Philadelphia.

Fassett suggested the illegal bypass was the work of a tenant who vanished after PGW discovered the gas theft. "She just seemed to disappear off the face of the earth," Fassett said, according to a transcript of the hearing before Judge Jones.

Jones recommended that Fassett be allowed to pay down the debt over 24 months, noting that he reported monthly earnings of only $671 a month from Social Security.

But the commissioners ruled Thursday that Fassett was liable for gas consumed at the rowhouse in the 2500 block of North 26th Street and that he would have to pay off the full amount before PGW could restore service.

"To do otherwise, I believe, sends the wrong message to other law-abiding ratepayers that those who willfully misuse utility service can receive the benefit of a delayed repayment period at no interest to repay a debt arising from the misuse of service," vice chairman John F. Coleman Jr. said.

Fassett's case, which he argued without a lawyer last year, highlights a persistent problem that utilities in general - and PGW in particular - have working with impoverished customers who struggle to pay for services. More than 10,000 PGW customers were shut off from service in 2014, the most of any gas utility in the state.

Discount programs to help low-income customers are available from utilities like PGW, but they have little patience for customers who fail to pay, and no tolerance for those who illegally tap into service.

"Tampering not only puts the customer and his or her family at risk, it also poses a danger to neighbors, PGW employees, and first responders," said Barry O'Sullivan, a PGW spokesman.

Fassett could not be reached for comment Thursday. No one responded to a visit to the North 26th Street address or to a note left in the door. The phone number he provided to PGW in 2013 was answered by a Spanish-speaking woman who said she did not know Fassett.

PGW workers discovered the tampering in 2013 while investigating a gas leak in an adjacent building. The gas meter had been removed on Fassett's house and replaced by a flexible metal hose that connected the house directly to the service line.

The theft went undetected by PGW because it had disconnected the house in 2002 and there was no current account at that address.

Coleman said it was "reasonable" to expect the bypass was installed sometime after service was cut off in 2002, and he did not find Fassett's story credible. But PGW billed Fassett only for the four years when he said the house was rented out.

Commissioner James H. Cawley "strongly" encouraged PGW to make a presentation to the PUC about implementing stronger policies to monitor dormant accounts for unauthorized use.