State Attorney General Doug Chin said in a formal opinion today that the Hawaii Constitution authorized Gov. David Ige to appoint Tom Gorak on an interim basis to the Public Utilities Commission.
The opinion comes after controversy involving Ige’s move to appoint Gorak days before the three-member panel was expected to rule on Florida-based NextEra Energy Inc.’s $4.3 billion purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries. Gorak’s predecessor, Mike Champley, had been one of the three sitting commission members involved in the year-and-a-half-long review of the sale.
Ige has said he is against the sale, and critics have said he appointed Gorak to make sure the deal was not approved. Ige denied the change was made to influence the NextEra decision.
The governor said Champley’s term was up on June 30, and that he wanted to appoint a new commissioner with views more closely aligned with his own. Ige said the attorney general had looked at the situation and confirmed in a letter that the governor has the authority to appoint Gorak as an interim commissioner.
Senate President Ron Kouchi (D, Kauai-Niihau) asked the state attorney general in a letter last week to provide a formal opinion regarding Ige’s authority to appoint Gorak.
The attorney general’s opinion said the governor can fill vacancies in certain public offices under the interim appointments provision in Article V, Section 6 of the Hawaii Constitution.
The attorney general said the opinion only addresses interim appointments, not the Senate’s “advice and consent” role for appointments when the Senate is in session.
According to the provision cited by the attorney general, “when the Senate is not in session and a vacancy occurs in any office, appointment to which requires the confirmation of the senate, the governor may fill the office by granting a commission which shall expire, unless such appointment is confirmed, at the end of the next session of the senate.”
The attorney general said previous attorney general opinions in 1973 and 1980 addressed different issues from those raised regarding the PUC commissioner. Those who questioned Ige’s appointment of Gorak said the previous two general opinions show that Champley is entitled to continue in office as a holdover commissioner until the state Senate can confirm a new appointment. The Legislature adjourned in May and will reconvene in January.
The formal opinion said Gorak’s appointment lasts only until the Senate considers it when the Legislature is back in session.