By Steve Haner
The new Democratic majority in the Virginia General Assembly is moving rapidly to fill the two State Corporation Commission vacancies with excellent, qualified choices. One is well known in Virginia and the second is new to our hallowed Capitol, but with a decade of energy law experience on the federal level.
Former Virginia Deputy Attorney General Samuel T. Towell has degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (engineering) and the University of Virginia (law). Kelsey A. Bagot just got her Harvard Law degree a decade ago, but she had the opportunity at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work for former SCC Chairman Mark Christie.
Both appeared this afternoon before a brief, perfunctory really, joint meeting of the relevant House and Senate committees. Within a couple of minutes, with only one question asked, both were unanimously certified as qualified. Which they are.
It will be up to the full House and Senate to formally elect them at some point in the next few days. The two seats they will fill have been vacant for a long time and they will start with desks piled high. Members of the SCC are actually judges, subject to Virginia judicial canons. The pending state budget sets the salaries as of next July 1 at $214,000 for the chair and $212,000 for the other two members.
Commissioner Jehmal Hudson has been serving on his own, supplemented by former commissioners, since the departure of former Commissioner Judith Jagdmann a year ago. Hudson is also a FERC veteran. The 2022 and 2023 Assembly sessions stayed deadlocked on possible replacements.
Towell did the same job at the Attorney General’s office as Jagdmann initially had, serving as the deputy for civil litigation for Attorney General Mark Herring. That meant he supervised the consumer advocacy section, which litigates cases in front of the SCC, but which also advised the General Assembly on pending litigation. Before that, he was a deputy secretary of agriculture for Governor Terry McAuliffe.
After leaving that office, he joined Smithfield Foods as its litigation counsel He also has worked for Richmond private law firms Williams Mullen and McGuire Woods. While energy has been the focus of most attention, the 700-person SCC staff regulates wide swaths of the Virginia economy, from insurance to railroads to the securities industry.
The younger Bagot (impressively young for this post) has a resume much more focused on energy, but with a range of clients, a “360 degree view” as she put it to the legislators during her short introduction. At Harvard, per LinkedIn, she was editor of a law review focused on the environment. Currently she works for NextEra Energy, which has renewable generation and transmission businesses along with its flagship utility, Florida Power and Light.
She assured the legislators she understands the role of the commission is to implement the laws as passed by the General Assembly. One legislator tenderly pushed on whether she would be biased based on her renewable energy background. “I will not have a bent one way or the other,” she replied, but will be “open minded” and “ask the right questions.” I think most Virginia observers will hope she paid close attention and learned from the sometimes opinionated, but always scrupulously fair Judge Christie.
This should close a contentious and disappointing two years of stalemate. Bagot is correct that, when the process plays out as it should, the big policy questions are decided by the General Assembly. In Virginia’s broken condition, even the small policy questions, the minutia, are being dictated by legislators, with the pending 2024 bills as bad as ever. But with questions that do reach the SCC, decisions won’t be influenced by campaign contributions, one-sided committee hearings, legislative ambush by substitute or private meetings with lobbyists.