Homer Electric Association is suing a Sterling man for stealing what it said is more than $325,500 in power over seven years — the co-op’s biggest reported instance of electricity theft to date.
The lawsuit, filed last week in Homer District Court, alleges Sterling resident Max Finch used a wiretap for years to avoid paying for energy for his business, Alaska Canoe and Campground. Finch said he didn’t know about the wiretap or the stolen electricity and that it was the doings of a previous property manager.
It’s the second time HEA says it’s discovered the Sterling Highway campground and RV park stealing power.
“We’re generally not comfortable with anyone diverting energy because what they’re really doing — they’re not just taking from HEA, they’re taking from all of our members,” said Keriann Baker, HEA’s director of member relations. “Because those costs are being passed onto all of us as a collective, as a cooperative.”
Baker said linemen discovered the tap this fall when they went to investigate why a meter display had failed — something that in itself is routine.
But while they were at the property, they found evidence of tampering and later discovered what looked like a man-made hole in the ground by an electric transformer pole. Underground, they found two wires that were clamped onto a service line, according to the complaint.
When the linemen asked him about the wires, Finch told them an electrician he hired had put them there.
Linemen tried to investigate further a week later. But they couldn’t, the suit said, because Finch’s truck was right over the spot where they found the tampering. Finch, for his part, said it wasn’t his truck and he was out of the country at the time.
When the linemen returned, the truck had been moved. When they investigated, they found a service line had been tapped to divert electric current from the meter to another location on the property. They immediately removed the tampered wires and de-energized the meter, according to the lawsuit.
Homer Electric said Finch started diverting electricity in November 2014, bringing the total power taken from the co-op without payment to at least $325,543. The co-op estimates an additional $9,992 in damages to property.
Finch said the rewiring was put in by a previous manager of the property, who lived in Sterling and died in 2014. Finch said he managed the property and paid the bills while Finch was working away from home. He said the other manager probably tampered with the wires to save money.
“Any of the costs that were incurred from the business he had to pay for,” Finch said. “And of course, the electrical was the biggest bill.”
But said he didn’t know about the diversion. And he said he genuinely did not know he was not paying what he was supposed to be paying to HEA, since there were so many bills for the property and variability in visitors staying there.
He said he wasn’t capable of doing that digging. And he said proof of that is he needed HEA’s help to fix an electrical issue.
“It was something that was bigger than me. I wasn’t capable of doing that kind of project,” he said. “I just left it to HEA to figure out, or I would’ve tried to cover my tracks somehow. But I didn’t do that.”
The suit said the truck parked over the site and the prior instance of tampering show that Finch is guilty.
In 2013, Homer Electric caught Alaska Canoe and Campground tampering with two meters, which led to three exploded transformers and resulted in damages of almost $38,751. Finch owed an additional $6,025 in lost energy payments.
He repaid both those costs and was reconnected later that year. He said the other manager was responsible for that tampering, too, but that he paid up because he was the property’s owner.
Baker said it’s disappointing that Finch would tamper with the wires a second time after the co-op let him off on good standing in 2013. While the first instance was above ground, the second was harder to detect below ground.
“Our position is, you don’t just get wired tampered with six feet underground out of sight of anyone by accident,” Baker said.
She said linemen are also concerned because someone could have gotten hurt from the tampered lines.
Homer Electric said it’s entitled to both the value of the damages and three times the value of the electricity that was stolen — close to $1 million, total.
Finch also has a Homer Electric meter at his house. But Baker said there’s no evidence at this time that he’s tampering with that one, as well.