DeWine to name former judge to head powerful utility commission

Gov. Mike DeWine will appoint former Franklin County judge Jenifer French to the powerful Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, replacing attorney Sam Randazzo who resigned after the FBI searched his home.

“Although I claim no expertise in public utility matters, throughout my professional career I have been able to make thoughtful, conscientious decisions on complex and difficult matters after carefully listening to all sides,” said French, in her application letter.

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French, of Westerville, is a Republican who lost her seat on the Franklin County Common Pleas Court when Democrats swept five judicial races in November 2020.

French’s appointment is subject to confirmation by the Ohio Senate.

DeWine announced her appointment during a talk Friday at the City Club of Cleveland. He called French a smart judge with a reputation for studying the facts.

“She has no background in the industry period, which I think at this unique point of time is a real asset,” DeWine said.

Rachael Belz of Ohio Consumers Power Alliance expressed concern over French’s lack of background in consumer advocacy or energy policy, saying it would make her more reliant on PUCO staff insiders.

“Ohioans deserve better than what we got with Sam Randazzo. We deserve an energy policy that is not clouded by corruption and lies,” Belz said. “We offer our congratulations to Ms. French and urge her to bring dignity, transparency, and the consumer perspective back to the PUCO. We urge her to provide a fresh start.”

The PUCO Nominating Council went through two rounds of applications for the post. DeWine rejected the first list of four names the council recommended, prompting a second round of applications.

In February, the council recommended four more names: French, Daniel Shields, Melissa Shilling and Virginia King.

The five member utilities commission regulates electric, gas and telecom utilities. Its work impacts millions of consumers across the state as well as multibillion dollar corporations.

Commissioners serve staggered, five-year terms. French will fill out the remainder of Randazzo’s term, which expires in April 2024.

Randazzo resigned in November after FBI agents searched his condo and Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it paid $4.3 million in January 2019 to someone who was appointed in February 2019 as an Ohio utility regulator.

FirstEnergy and its former subsidiary are cooperating with multiple investigations, including by the SEC, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, PUCO and others.

In July 2020, FBI agents arrested then Ohio House speaker Larry Householder, former Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges, lobbyist Juan Cespedes, political strategist Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Neil Clark. Each were charged in U.S. District with racketeering.

In October, Longstreth and Cespedes pleaded guilty.

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Borges and Householder have pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this week, Clark died in an apparent suicide in a wooded area near his Florida home, according to the Collier County Sheriff’s Department.

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