Panel picks 4 new nominees for top Ohio utility regulator

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The vacancy created when Ohio’s top utility regulator resigned amid a $60 million bribery scandal inched closer to being filled Friday as a panel picked a second group of nominees to send to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Nominating Council interviewed six semifinalists for the position left open when PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo stepped down Nov. 20. Members then ranked their picks, with top vote-getters becoming the four finalists.

They were:

— Jenifer French, an attorney who lost a reelection bid for Franklin County Common Pleas Court in November

— Virginia King, an assistant general counsel at Findlay-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. focused on the company’s sustainability efforts

— Daniel Shields, who spent 30 years at the PUCO, including as federal energy advocate, and the past seven years at the Office of Consumer’s Counsel

— Melissa Shilling, a 17-year member of the state’s Environmental Review Appeals Commission

In a rare move, DeWine rejected the first list he was sent on Jan. 27, telling the panel in a letter that, while the candidates were all “appropriate,” he preferred “to consider additional capable candidates” before making his decision. The move drew swift criticism from consumer advocates, who viewed at least one of the candidates as highly qualified.

The new round of semifinalists contained no duplicates from the first list DeWine rejected.

Also Friday, Generation Now Inc., a political dark money group that authorities say was used as part of the bribery scheme, was scheduled to enter a guilty plea in federal court in Cincinnati to one count of racketeering while agreeing to forfeit $1.5 million.

Federal investigators say former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and others used Generation Now as a conduit for $60 million secretly provided by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. The money was allegedly used to gain legislative approval for a $1 billion bailout of two nuclear power plants operated by a FirstEnergy subsidiary when the bill was passed in July 2019.

Randazzo has not been charged in the bribery investigation. He resigned in November days after his Columbus townhome was searched by the FBI and FirstEnergy revealed that former executives had paid $4 million to the firm of an Ohio official meeting Randazzo’s description to terminate a purported consulting contract. The payment was made just before DeWine appointed Randazzo as PUCO chairman.

By Julie Carr Smyth and Mark Gillispie

Associated Press