It has been 9 years since “Bennie” Fuelberg ran PEC, and run it he did. He left the premises for the last time in 2007 under a cloud of scandal and disgrace. He ran PEC in the manner of an authoritarian tyrant and, indeed, he nearly ran it into the ground. This man, of some intelligence and possessed of significant engineering instincts, simultaneously inspired fear over employees and conducted the business of the members in secret. He bullied his hand-picked board of good ole boy directors and diverted member money into multiple outside financial misadventures. He robbed PEC of its reputation locally and nationally, stigmatizing PEC to this day. Ultimately, Fuelberg and PEC’s former general counsel, Walter Demond, were charged with felonies and convicted in jury trials. Bennie has done jail time. The cost of failed business ventures and subsequent investigations (such as the Navigant Report), along with a member-initiated lawsuit against the cooperative cost PEC millions. The post-Fuelberg period became PEC’s era of reckoning.
It is now 2016. PEC is a radically changed place since the days of Bennie Fuelberg. Board members are fully elected, bylaws were reformed, a member Bill of Rights was enacted providing for open meetings and open records. Authoritarian strongman rule was replaced by democratic governance. A gifted and talented CEO named John Hewa now sits in Bennie’s old office. The contrast between the two could not be more stark in style and substance. The cooperative’s current financial and member service metrics, when measured against almost any standard, are good, excellent or exceptional.
It is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that the phrase, “what’s past is prologue” is found. People misuse the expression today to mean that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. While there may be some truth to that sentiment, Shakespeare intended the phrase to mean something quite the opposite. He meant it to imply that everything that came before doesn’t matter because a new and glorious future is stretching out before us.
Out of habit and convenience, many members of the reform era continue to use Bennie Fuelberg as a convenient whipping boy. Merle Moden invoked his name in his just-published column. Member Ernest Altgelt wallows gratuitously in the past at every opportunity. Bennie’s name seems to be part and parcel to almost every Austin American-Statesman story published about PEC. This blog as well has contributed, occasionally, to this proclivity.
Continuing this pattern is damaging to PEC and counter-productive. While it is true that Fuelberg’s reign ended in disaster, PEC cannot afford to live in the past. Doing so is unfair to the employees who proudly work toward its new and more glorious future. It is unfair to the senior management team, few of whom worked here in those days. It is unfair to the members, many of whom cannot shake the ghosts of the past when referencing PEC.
Bennie Fuelberg is part of PEC’s DNA. He is a historical fact. We cannot whitewash over his history, nor should we deny it. Management and Board should spend at least an hour or two a year formally reviewing that history, summarizing the Navigant Report and reminding themselves of how easy it is to shade the truth, operate in secret and waste money on foolish things. It is the duty of the CEO and Board of Directors especially to know this history and to never forget.
But it is beyond time to move on. Bennie Fuelberg is the past. Nothing he did or did not do will change that. Only the future can change, and the future for PEC should be bright. John Hewa represents the future. PEC is fortunate to have a leader of his substance at the helm. If PEC tends to its cooperative roots, communicates honestly with its members, conducts its business in the open and focuses on member NEEDS, PEC’s best days remain ahead. Those days should pass without the need to further invoke the name of Bennie Fuelberg.