Electrical pylons. Photo from Getty Images.
A nominating council sent a list of four candidates to Gov. Mike DeWine to appoint as a member of the board that regulates Ohio’s public utilities.
All four have deep ties to the natural gas and or utility industries, according to a review of their cover letters, resumes, and court records.
The nominee would fill one of five seats on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. PUCO commissioners oversee utility companies, adjudicating disputes between residential, industrial, commercial, and utility interests. The commission makes regulatory decisions on things like whether utility companies can increase gas and electric costs, whether they’re using their monopolistic power to generate “significantly excessive” profit margins, or whether companies can add extra fees on top of customers’ bills in the form of “riders.”
The appointment (or re-appointment) process plays out in the shadow of a federal prosecution alleging FirstEnergy Corp. paid more than $60 million into a nonprofit, secretly controlled by then House Speaker Larry Householder, in order to pass favorable legislation. Prosecutors said the legislation, House Bill 6, was worth about $1.3 billion to FirstEnergy. Householder has pleaded not guilty and could face trial later this year.
HB 6 provided for a ratepayer-funded bailout of two nuclear plants owned at the time by a subsidiary of FirstEnergy. It also provided a ratepayer-funded bailout to three Ohio utilities for their losses on two coal-fired power plants in Ohio and Indiana: American Electric Power (AEP), Duke Energy, and AES Ohio. Lawmakers have since repealed the nuclear bailout, though they left the coal bailout intact.
FirstEnergy entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice this summer to “potentially” avert a charge of wire fraud. It was ordered to pay a $230 million penalty this summer, and admitted to bribing PUCO’s most recent former chairman, utility lawyer Sam Randazzo, for $4.3 million just before he was appointed. Randazzo has maintained his innocence and has not been charged with a crime.
A PUCO spokesman referred inquiries about the candidates’ industry ties to the governor’s office. In January, DeWine told Gongwer News Service he would look for a candidate who didn’t have a background in or connections to the utility industry. When asked Tuesday about the four candidates’ ties, however, a DeWine spokesman offered different criteria.
“[We] will review the candidates nominated by the Nominating Counsel. Governor DeWine has committed to picking a candidate who is judicious and will weigh all sides of issues before the PUCO,” said spokesman Dan Tierney.
Several organizations representing resiential customers’ energy interests — the Ohio Consumers Counsel, Pro Seniors Inc., and the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio — issued a letter earlier this month criticizing the PUCO’s failure to avoid utility influence in the selection process. They called for a candidate with a “bona fide and strong consumer representation background (and not a strong political background)” and not someone who has worked for a regulated utility. In another letter released Thursday, the OCC called on DeWine to reject the slate at large and appoint a consumer advocate and not “utility personnel.”
Here’s a look at the commissioners DeWine is set to consider.
Conway currently holds the seat in question. He was appointed by Gov. John Kasich in 2017.
Before starting as commissioner, he practiced energy and telecommunications law for the law firm of Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur. He led the firm’s energy and telecommunications practice group.
His submitted resume doesn’t list any specific clients. However, a review of state and federal court records show Conway has represented several large utilities regulated by the PUCO.
For instance, he represented Monongahela Power Company in a 2004 lawsuit challenging a PUCO order before the utility was acquired by FirstEnergy. Court records show him representing Columbia Gas (child company of NiSource) as far back as 2006 and as recently as 2013. He has represented AEP as counsel as far back as 2000 and as recently as 2014.
The former mayor of Walbridge Ohio, Wilczynski currently works as the corporate process safety manager at Marathon Petroleum Corp., which refines and transports crude oil.
His resume lists previous work as an auditor at BP Oil and as an energy consultant. He worked as an engineer at the Davis Besse nuclear station, one of the two plants bailed out by HB 6.
In his cover letter, he highlighted his work with refineries, oil and natural gas production, and “close working relationships” with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“I have had a long career in the energy business, from the early days as an engineer at Toledo Edison’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant to my current position leading the process safety team for Marathon Petroleum’s natural gas business,” he wrote.
For the past seven years, Serriano has worked as vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary, and chief compliance and ethics officer with the Upper Peninsula Power Company in Michigan — a regulated utility that sells electricity to about 52,000 Michiganders.
“These positions provide me with extensive energy and utility industry expertise to draw upon, expertise that can only prove valuable to a Commissioner’s decision-making thought processes,” he wrote in a cover letter.
Given what he called “present concerns about undue influence, whether actual or perceived” surrounding energy policy in Ohio, he stated his expertise was developed “without any such undue influence in Ohio or elsewhere.”
Other experience includes legal work for a distilling company, serving in the Lucas County Auditor’s Office, and lawyering for the real estate and other industries.
Yarnell currently works as a gas distribution and utilities manager at SAM, a surveying and mapping firm. His resume lists gas distribution clients including NiSource, Duke Energy and Washington Gas and Light.
From 2016-2019, he worked at Washington Gas and Light Company as a gas operations supervisor in Virginia.
He also listed other experience at contracting and engineering firm where he worked with gas companies. In his cover letter, he described his work as part of operations, damage prevention and integrity management of natural gas and other utilities.
“Much of my experience is in the natural gas industry varying from asset integrity to asset management in upstream, midstream and downstream environments,” he said.
This article was updated with a letter sent by the Ohio Consumers Counsel and released Thursday.
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