DeWine won’t commit to putting consumer advocate on utility commission

By: - January 25, 2021 12:50 am

Electrical pylons. Photo from Getty Images.

Last week, as he rejected a list of four possible nominees to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said he might still consider some of the individuals on the list — which included a consumer advocate.

However, the governor’s office wouldn’t commit to appointing someone who has no ties to the industry that person will regulate.

The commission is supposed to regulate monopoly utilities on behalf of the ratepayers who have to use their services. But the state’s tradition of appointing lobbyists and others with ties to the industry has resulted in some utility-friendly outcomes.

The position DeWine is seeking to fill was held by Sam Randazzo, a former FirstEnergy lobbyist who was forced to resign late last year after FirstEnergy disclosed that in 2019 it had paid someone $4 million just before the individual joined the state’s regulating body. DeWine in December said the payment went to Randazzo, whose home was raided by federal agents in November.

Randazzo hasn’t been charged in connection with the 2019 passage of House Bill 6, a $1.3 billion package that bailed out two nuclear plants formerly owned by FirstEnergy and two aging coal plants that are owned by a consortium of Ohio utilities, including FirstEnergy.

Last summer, federal authorities arrested then-House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and four associates. They also outlined a $61 million scheme to pass House Bill 6 that U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said was probably the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio history. Two of Householder’s associates have subsequently pleaded guilty to their role in the scheme.

Even though he was supposed to be a neutral arbiter as chairman of the utility commission, emails released earlier this year indicate that Randazzo played a role in shaping the bailout bill, which the news organization Vox called “the worst energy bill of the 21st century” — and which benefited FirstEnergy and other Ohio utilities so handsomely.

That’s not the only way that a PUCO dominated by industry insiders has benefited utilities at the expense of ratepayers.

Since 2009, Ohio utilities have collected more than $1 billion in upcharges that were later ruled to be unlawful by the Ohio Supreme Court. But the utilities have been allowed to keep the money anyway because the PUCO didn’t create a refund mechanism when it allowed the spurious charges.

Until Randazzo left the utility commission, a majority of the panel’s five members had ties to the companies they were responsible for regulating. Commissioner Daniel R. Conway was a lawyer representing electric, natural gas and telecommunications utilities before his appointment. Among the positions Commissioner Lawrence K. Friedeman held, he was a board member with industry groups such as the Ohio Gas Association and the Ohio Gas Suppliers Association.

To fill Randazzo’s seat, DeWine had a chance to pick a commissioner who has a background in representing consumers in the utility space instead of representing the utilities themselves. 

On Dec. 21, the Public Utilities Commission Nominating Council sent the governor a list of four names. It included Greg Poulos, who had worked for the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the state’s official advocate for utility consumers.

DeWine rejected the list and asked for four more names, writing last Wednesday: “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.”

Bruce Weston, the consumers’ counsel, said DeWine’s apparent rejection of Poulos continues a pattern.

“It is a disappointment that once again a consumer advocate has been rejected for appointment to the PUCO,” he wrote in a statement. “Currently, two of the PUCO commissioners formerly worked for utilities, and until recently there were three who worked for utilities. The legislature should reform the process for selection of PUCO commissioners, in the interest of fairness, balance and justice for Ohio consumers.”

DeWine spokeswoman Jill Del Greco stressed that in asking for more names, DeWine hadn’t rejected anybody.

As indicated in the letter from the governor to the PUCO Nominating Council, the list was rejected, but the candidates themselves were not,” she said in an email. “The Governor is simply asking for more options on a second list. A candidate from the first list could still be selected. The Governor’s actions to extend the search for the right candidate demonstrates his commitment to selecting the best person to serve the state of Ohio and its citizens.”

She didn’t respond, however, to a question asking if DeWine would commit to nominating a commissioner who is free from entanglements with the utilities that the PUCO regulates.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.