COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine has chosen a former Franklin County Common Pleas judge as the state’s next top utilities regulator.
Jenifer French, a Republican who lost re-election in November, will be the next chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, DeWine announced on Friday. She is filling a position that has been vacant since late November, when former PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo resigned days after the FBI searched his home. Her term will run through April 10, 2024.
DeWine shared news of French’s hiring, which is subject to confirmation from the Ohio Senate, during a forum with the City Club of Cleveland.
“What I have found in talking to people who have gone before her and people who know her, 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 a just resolution,” DeWine said.
Before becoming a judge in 2015, French was a lawyer focusing on insurance litigation, according to her résumé. She was a city council member in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus, from 2011 to 2015.
“She has no background in the industry, period,” DeWine said. “Which I think in this unique point in time is a real asset.”
DeWine was alluding to the federal investigation into the passage of Ohio House Bill 6, a nuclear bailout law DeWine signed in July 2019. Federal prosecutors have said FirstEnergy supplied bribe money to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, in the form of $61 million in political spending, helping him become House speaker in exchange for Householder’s help passing the legislation.
Federal prosecutors have said their investigation isn’t focused on the governor’s office, but DeWine has faced criticism for his administration’s close ties to FirstEnergy, including his decision to hire Randazzo for the job in early 2019.
Randazzo emerged as a relevant figure to the federal investigation into HB6 and FirstEnergy after the Akron-based utility disclosed paying $4 million to an entity associated with someone state officials have said is Randazzo shortly before DeWine hired him. The company has said that payment led the unnamed regulator to act “at the request or for the benefit of FirstEnergy as a consequence of receiving such payment.” Randazzo has not been charged or accused of wrongdoing.
Rachael Belz, director of the Ohio Consumers Power Alliance, in a statement criticized DeWine for not choosing a candidate with a consumer background.
“We are disappointed that Governor DeWine rejected those with consumer advocacy experience earlier in this process, and we call on 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,” Belz said.