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Electric Utility Week

Gary Cohen, the California Public Utilities Commission‘s general counsel, is not expecting his imminent departure to impact the state utility regulators’ ongoing legal efforts. The PUC‘s chief litigator announced on Jan. 27 that he will leave his post to become the general counsel of the state Dept. of Insurance.

In an interview, Cohen said he believed he could leave his position without a devastating impact since the PUC is entering the final stages of its legal efforts to resolve the mess from the state’s 2000-2001 power crisis. ”A lot of major litigation the PUC is dealing with is largely coming to an end by mid-year,” he said.

Cohen said he will likely stay on until June in order to conclude the PUC‘s efforts to gain approval for its alternate bankruptcy plan for Pacific Gas & Electric. He will also finish his argument before the California Supreme Court to prevent the dissolution of its $ 3.5-billion wholesale power debt settlement with Southern California Edison.

Besides utility-related cases, Cohen said the PUC also by mid-year should finish up its efforts at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to garner wholesale power refunds and overturn the state’s long-term power contracts signed in 2001.

Although some issues remain, the PUC under Cohen has made great steps in the past year to enable PG&E, SoCal Ed and San Diego Gas & Electric to get back into the power purchasing business. In the meantime, the PUC‘s role has become less critical since the state’s wholesale power prices have fallen significantly and the market is being redesigned with the intent of preventing supplier abuses.

Cohen said his departure was not due to the Dec. 31 demotion of Loretta Lynch from PUC president to commissioner. Lynch had previously worked with Cohen in private practice and gave him his job in March 2001. New PUC President Michael Peevey had actually asked him to stay but he felt he had more interest in a position in a new field, he said. The PUC is presently holding a national search to find Cohen’s replacement.

Gary Ackerman, executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum, said Cohen likely left because he will have less to do under Peevey’s reign. Since his arrival and under Lynch’s direction, the PUC has been particularly litigious against the generators over refunds and contracts. ”He carried the goal of the PUC [under Lynch]. [Peevey’s reign] won’t be as fun for him. This will be a positive change to the PUC,” he said.

As for state-level issues, consumer groups heralded Cohen’s departure given he was not knowledgeable about the PUC‘s legal rights. ”They need to find someone who knows the law. He did not produce high quality work,” said Michael Florio, executive director of The Utility Reform Network. ”He presented a muddled case in the PG&E bankruptcy case and caused our group to file litigation on the SoCal Ed settlement.”

Doug Heller, executive director of The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said that, ”Cohen leaves no great legacy. Under his legal advice, the PUC broke state laws to develop the SoCal Ed deal.”


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