DeWine rejects list of nominees for Ohio utility commission

January 20, 2021 GMT

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine faced swift criticism from consumer advocates Wednesday after he rejected the entire slate of candidates nominated to replace a former top state utility regulator tainted by a $60 million federal bribery investigation and requested a new list.

In a letter to the chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Nominating Council, the Republican governor said: “The list contained candidates who could be an appropriate addition to the PUCO. However, I would like to consider additional capable candidates before making my appointment to the vacancy.”

Four names were submitted to DeWine in December by the council as potential replacements for former PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo, who resigned Nov. 20.

Randazzo stepped down days after an FBI search of his Columbus townhome and a revelation by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., the utility at the center of the bribery scandal, that it had paid the firm of a state official meeting Randazzo’s description $4 million in early 2019 to terminate a long-term consulting relationship.

“Why would Gov. DeWine turn away professionals with extensive utility market experience and consumer advocacy expertise who could have brought a fresh start and much-needed perspective to a PUCO that is currently in the shadows of scandal?” asked Rachael Belz, director of the Ohio Consumers Power Alliance, in a statement.

“Unless Gov. DeWine is willing to provide us with his reasons for rejecting these candidates,” she added, “it begs the question as to who exactly is steering the ship in Ohio — Gov. DeWine or the utilities?”

DeWine spokesperson Catherine Sulecki declined to provide additional explanation for the governor’s decision, saying the letter “speaks for itself.”

The list included former Supreme Court Justice Judith French, who lost a reelection bid in November; Anne Vogel, a top DeWine aide who formerly worked as an attorney for the electric utility AEP Ohio; Angela Amos, a policy adviser at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; and Gregory Poulos, the executive director of Consumer Advocates of the PJM States, a nonprofit utility group.

“It’s a surprise when the four names that go to the governor leads to a request for a new slate of candidates,” said former PUCO Chair Todd Snitchler, who leads an electric power generation association. “I can’t recall the last time it happened.”

French, who is viewed as an even-handed jurist, had been considered a top contender for the job but dropped out of the running and was appointed DeWine’s insurance director on Tuesday. Vogel may have been viewed unfavorably because of questions about the administration’s handling of the Randazzo appointment.

The Associated Press reported last month that DeWine and top aides disregarded warnings in early 2019 about the Randazzo selection from consumer and environmental advocates along with fellow Republicans. Randazzo’s calendars show he and Vogel met regularly.

“It is a disappointment that once again a consumer advocate has been rejected for appointment to the PUCO. Currently, two of the PUCO commissioners formerly worked for utilities, and until recently there were three who worked for utilities,” Bruce Weston, director of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel said. “The Legislature should reform the process for selection of PUCO commissioners, in the interest of fairness, balance and justice for Ohio consumers.”

Michael McGovern, managing director of liberal think tank ProgressOhio, echoed that sentiment.

““If DeWine is serious about taking on corruption, he needs to appoint a PUCO chair with no utility ties or connections to the current compromised commission,” he said in a statement.

“I have learned to never underestimate the amount of backroom politics for anything involving the PUCO,” Ned Hill, professor of economic development at Ohio State University, said. “If you ended up with a list of token consumer advocates on it, of course the list will be questioned by utilities.”