Association members "did not support this experiment in competitive markets," said Acquard. "Right now they are working as close as the can with the legislature to clean up the mess the legislatures created."

In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and lawmakers have been scrambling to negotiate a deal with Constellation executives to reduce the impact of the rate increase, while keeping their eyes on the November election. To gain bargaining power in their negotiations, the Assembly has passed several contentious pieces of legislation, including a bill granting lawmakers the authority to veto the proposed merger.

Much of the finger-pointing regarding the People's Counsel involves politics. Ehrlich appointed Smith in 2003, to replace Travieso, a Democratic appointee who was abruptly fired that summer.

Travieso's ouster - along with several subordinates - is among the cases being reviewed by a bipartisan panel investigating if the Ehrlich administration purposely fired employees for political reasons.

Some Democrats say that after Smith's arrival, the agency became more aligned with business.

"The governor got rid of all the other lawyers who were the advocates for the consumer; since then it's lost its edge," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "The People's Counsel is supposed to make sure the consumers have someone sticking up for them."

Middleton said lawmakers respected Travieso's work and were frustrated by his removal.

"He fought like a junkyard dog for consumers," he said.

Smith holds up her experience as a Legal Aid attorney and other credentials as evidence of her commitment to the public. Her expertise includes positions as special solicitor for the Baltimore solicitor's office and deputy counsel for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Not all lawmakers are taking aim at the People's Counsel. Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said he worked with Smith two years ago to hold public forums on price increases, something the agency says it does regularly.

"When she was first appointed, I thought she was very bright, very capable and a very strong advocate for the low-income consumers," he said. "If there was any criticism, it was that she was solely focused on low-income residents."

Smith acknowledges that the agency's focus is not public appearances, but rather advocating on critical electricity proposals and litigating consumer cases.

In January, the agency filed a complaint before the Public Service Commission requesting an investigation into the proposed Constellation merger with FPL, three months before the General Assembly pushed legislation on the issue.

In March, it filed a complaint urging BGE to halt its budget billing program, in which some 50,000 customers have already been charged part of the 72 percent rate increase.

And two weeks ago, Smith sent testimony to lawmakers backing a bill that would recoup an estimated $528 million in "stranded costs," money ratepayers paid Constellation for an expected plunge in value to its power plants, a loss that never occurred.

"I believe my clients are entitled to that money," said Smith, adding she was not at the agency when the agreement was settled. "That agreement was not in their best interests."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com