Gov. David Ige shuffled the deck Wednesday by appointing a new Public Utilities Commission member just days before the three-person panel is expected to vote on whether NextEra Energy Inc. may purchase the state’s largest electric utility for $4.3 billion.
Ige, who is opposed to the NextEra deal, appointed Tom Gorak, the PUC’s chief counsel, to take the place of outgoing PUC Commissioner Michael Champley.
Ige said he appointed Gorak, 64, because his views align with the governor’s.
“It’s really about trying to find people who share core values and share the long-term vision,” Ige said at a news conference.
Florida-based NextEra announced in December 2014 its plan to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., which supplies power to
90 percent of the state.
Ige said a year ago he objected to NextEra’s bid. Ige has argued that NextEra is not the best partner for the state because it would not make Hawaii its main focus.
NextEra, with a market capitalization of $59 billion, has operations in 27 states and Canada. News reports this week said NextEra has offered to buy a top Texas utility for up to $18 billion.
NextEra declined to comment about Ige’s appointment.
Critics said Ige’s appointment of Gorak is an attempt by the governor to make sure the PUC rejects the NextEra purchase.
The appointment comes at the most crucial time for the NextEra decision.
Champley was appointed to the PUC in 2011 by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, and his term expires today. Ige said Gorak will take over Friday as an interim appointee.
Meanwhile, PUC Chairman Randy Iwase said the commission will likely announce its decision on NextEra next week. That would mean Gorak, not Champley, would get to decide one of the most important cases in PUC history.
Mina Morita, former Public Utilities Commission chairwoman, said Ige’s selection of Gorak as interim commissioner is an unlawful move to influence the state’s ruling on NextEra’s purchase of HEI.
“Why is the governor doing this at such a critical time? The obvious reason is somehow to influence the merger,” Morita said.
Ige denied that he was trying to alter the NextEra decision.
“I have not asked Mr. Gorak what his views are in the (NextEra) proceeding,” Ige said. “I have no idea whether this appointment makes a change or not.”
Iwase said Ige has not asked the commissioners about their position on the sale.
“Having known the governor for the time I have, serving with him in the Senate, he would not do that,” said Iwase, who also was appointed by Ige. “He believes and respects the process. He is not going to play that kind of political game. People can speculate all they want. I know that happens, but I know Gov. Ige, and he doesn’t play that game.”
Ige was also criticized for appointing Gorak without approval from the state Senate. Often state commissioners are allowed to remain in office until a successor is appointed and approved by the Senate.
Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Chairwoman Rosalyn Baker (D, West Maui-South Maui) said she was disappointed in the governor’s decision.
”The process needs to be followed whereby someone in a PUC position is allowed to be carried over until the Legislature would come back into the session,” Baker said.
Baker said Champley should see the NextEra decision through because he was the appointed commissioner at the time of the filing.
“I’m just disappointed that the governor would make an appointment like this because I was always taught that you go home from the dance with the people that brought you … we have three commissioners that have been fully vetted by the Senate.”
According to state law, each member of the PUC should hold office until a successor is “appointed and qualified.”
Ige said he checked on the legality of the appointment with state Attorney General Doug Chin, and that Chin approved it.
Ige said he had expected the PUC would have made a decision on the HEI sale before Champley’s term expired.
“I waited for this time because I did not want the appointment to impact the current proceedings of the commission,” Ige said. “I hoped that a decision would have been issued by this time.”
“I know that the PUC has a very important role to play in our drive for 100 percent clean renewable energy,” Ige continued. “I knew that I would be making a change on July 1. I did not want that announcement and the person nominated to impact or influence the decisions in any way. I can’t imagine if I had announced an appointment effective July 1st in February. Then all of the conversations in and around the proceedings and any of the existing proceedings would really be tied to what would happen with the new commissioner versus the old commissioner.”
When asked why he didn’t keep Champley on as a holdover commissioner, Ige said he wasn’t completely happy with Champley’s performance.
“I do know and am aware that Mr. Champley had disagreed with the previous chair in the commission and on many instances had voted or prevented the previous chair of the commission moving forward,” Ige said.
Ige said he informed Champley last week that he would be making a change. Champley did not return calls from the Star-Advertiser seeking comment.
Ige said he selected Gorak in part because he has been working closely on the NextEra case.
“I wanted to find someone that was fully aware and versed in the proceeding,” Ige said.
Gorak has 37 years in the utility field and has spent the past three years working at the PUC.
“I very much appreciate the trust the governor has placed in me to help the state meet its 100 percent renewable energy goals,” Gorak said. “I have been intimately involved in the merger preceding since the time the application has been filed. … There is a draft circulating that we will review, and any decision that is made will be based on the record evidence and on the law.”