COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A former county judge was selected Friday by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine as the next chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Jenifer French will succeed Sam Randazzo, who resigned as the state’s top utility regulator in November days after FBI agents searched his Columbus townhome and Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. revealed company top executives had paid him $4.3 to end a consulting contract.
FirstEnergy in U.S. Securities Exchange filings indicated the payment made a month before DeWine selected him as utilities commission chair was for future favors at the agency. Randazzo previously declined to comment about the payment.
The payment is part of a wide-ranging investigation into a tainted energy bill approved by the Ohio Legislature in July 2019. Federal authorities have accused FirstEnergy of secretly funding a $60 million bribery scheme to obtain passage of the bill that would have provided a $1 billion bailout to two Ohio nuclear power plants operated at the time by a wholly-owned subsidiary.
Then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four other men were arrested and indicted on federal racketeering charges last July. Householder has pleaded not guilty.
French, a Republican, narrowly lost reelection for a Franklin County judgeship in November. Her resume submitted to the utilities commission nominating council says she previously worked as a civil litigator for law firms in Columbus and San Diego. She was elected as judge in 2014. She served as a a City Council member in the Columbus suburb of Westerville from 2011 to 2015.
During a forum Friday, DeWine called French a “very smart judge, someone who has a reputation for studying the facts, taking a very complex set of facts, digging through that to come to just a resolution.”
He also noted that she has no background in the electric industry.
“Which I think in this unique point in time, is a real asset,” DeWine said.
The director of the advocacy group Ohio Consumers Power Alliance disagreed.
“We are disappointed that Governor DeWine rejected those with consumer advocacy experience earlier in this process,” group director Rachael Belz said in a statement. “And we call Ms. French to demonstrate a dedication to increasing equity, fairness, and access to services at the community level at a time when corruption has been winning the day in Ohio.”
The state’s utility watchdog, Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston, said in a statement that he was disappointed DeWine did not choose a consumer representative “to balance the utility backgrounds of other commissioners.”
“I do wish the new PUCO commissioner well in her service to the public,” Weston said.
The Ohio Environmental Council issued a statement Friday that said while French does not have a “deep background” in energy regulation, “we are encouraged that she has previous experience as a judge.”
“We need a fresh start at the PUCO so that Ohioans can once again have faith in those regulating our electric utilities,” the council said.
Senior attorney Rob Kelter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center said in a statement that French’s selection comes at a time when the utilities commission is at a crossroads and that “clean government and clean energy go hand in hand.”
“We need to ensure Ohio moves toward a clean energy future that’s good for consumers and good for the environment, Kelter said. “We also need the Commission to exercise its broad authority over FirstEnergy and the corruption scandal.”
In January, DeWine rejected four candidates put forward by the Nominating Council. He said that while the four were “appropriate” candidates, he wanted more names to consider.
French said in her application to the nominating council that if selected, she would “pledge to apply my skills, background and experience with the same independent, objective and open mind” as she did as a judge.
Welsh-Huggins reported from Columbus.
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