HEA sues Sterling man over power theft

Suit alleges more than $325,000 worth of power stolen from the cooperative since 2014.

Home Electric Association filed a complaint with the Homer District Court last month against a Sterling man who the company says has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of electricity through unauthorized alteration of utility lines. The complaint was filed with the Homer District Court on Dec. 17, 2021, and claims that Max Finch has been stealing power for his business for years.

Finch owns and operates Alaska Canoe and Campground in Sterling and has been previously fined by HEA for meter tampering. He declined to comment on the story in a call with the Clarion last week.

Finch is accused of stealing more than $325,000 worth of power from the cooperative since 2014. Finch has previously applied for energy at three different locations, two of which include facilities associated with Alaska Canoe and Campground, according to the complaint.

“HEA is committed to aggressively pursuing cases of power theft,” HEA Director of Member Relations Keriann Baker is quoted as saying in a press release. “This case isn’t just about taking power from HEA for his own use, it is about protecting our members and taking steps to keep electric rates down.”

HEA found that Finch tampered with meters on two of the properties with power by installing a bypass within the sealed meter boxes that redirected energy around the meters to avoid paying for services in 2013, the complaint says. It resulted in over $38,000 in damages to HEA equipment including three blown transformers and lost energy payments of more than $6,000, documents say. Finch repaid HEA for the damages and energy payments and was later reconnected, according to the documents.

The net electric energy consumed by an HEA member is measured using a meter, installed by HEA, that measures all electric power flowing in and out of a location, the complaint says. HEA members are required to pay for the net electric energy they consume and a meter is installed on each member’s premise. That membership agreement prohibits the tampering of or interference with meters or utility lines.

The cooperative investigated a separate incident in 2014, when HEA says it noticed a “drop in electric load” in one of the property meters about a year after the first incident, according to the complaint. That investigation did not reveal “actionable evidence” of energy diversion and a site inspection did not show evidence of tampering.

Most recently, HEA technicians saw “irregularities” with one of the meter displays during a regularly scheduled reading. Inspection of the site revealed what appeared to be a “man-made hole” in the ground at the base of the transformer pole going down to underground utility lines, the complaint says. Two wires were clamped on the exposed electric service leading to different directions on the property, the complaint says.

Documents allege Finch attributed the exposed wires to a Canadian electrician he hired. A site analysis conducted by HEA linemen determined the wires were “tapped into the neutral and not drawing electric current” and reported their presence as possible utility line tampering and power theft.

Linemen later returned to the site, but were unable to fully diagnose a newly discovered irregularity because Finch’s truck was parked over where the damage was later identified, documents say. The workers came back another day and determined that the service line had been tapped with a separate set of wires and connectors that diverted electric current upstream from the meter, to another location, according to the complaint.

The method was different from the one the company says was used by Finch in 2013, documents say, but pulled electricity directly from the service line without passing through the meter, which allowed him to use power that would not be billed or metered.

“In addition to being a means of taking electric power from HEA without being billed, the bypass wiring was not installed pursuant to code and constituted a substantial safety threat to individuals on or near the Premises and the public in general,” the complaint says.

An assessment conducted by HEA’s Engineering Projects Specialist found that Finch started diverting power beginning in November 2014, which would mean he took power without payment worth at least $325,543.81, court documents say. That’s in addition to roughly $10,000 worth of damages to HEA property.

According to a press release from HEA, the company has implemented programs to more effectively detect instances of power theft, including training linemen to identify evidence of wire tampering.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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