The Hawaii Senate rejected Gov. David Ige’s nomination of Tom Gorak to the three-member Public Utilities Commission on Friday night on a 15-10 vote.

The rejection was seen by opponents as retaliation against the governor for opposing Florida-based NextEra Energy’s $4.3 billion bid to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries.

None of Gorak’s opponents spoke on the Senate floor before the vote, but several of his supporters did.

Sen. Gil Riviere from the North Shore cited Gorak’s decades of experience and said “he’s exactly the person we need in the state of Hawaii to move us forward with our renewable energy portfolio.”

PUC Appointment Thomas Gorak horiz. 29 june 2016

Thomas Gorak has been serving as an interim member of the Public Utilities Commission.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This guy is a valuable asset to the people in Hawaii,” Riviere said. “If he doesn’t make it today we are not just knocking him out, we are hurting the people of Hawaii.”

Sens. Laura Thielen, Les Ihara, Breene Harimoto and Russell Ruderman also voiced support for Gorak. The governor watched the vote from the chamber, sitting between Gorak and PUC chairman Randy Iwase.

Ige said that afterward he was disappointed and that he will begin to search for a new commissioner.

“I just believe that the state of Hawaii has lost a good public servant who really was committed to a 100 percent renewable future and moving the state forward,” Ige said.

Gorak said after the hearing that he was grateful to his supporters, particularly the PUC staff.

“Life goes on,” he said.

Last-Minute Discussions

The environmental advocacy groups Sierra Club and Earthjustice tried to drum up last-minute support for Gorak Friday, circulating a letter that emphasized his qualifications.

The vast majority of testimony at Gorak’s confirmation hearing earlier this month was positive, with just three people opposing his confirmation.

Friday’s Senate session was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. but was delayed 40 minutes as senators discussed Gorak’s nomination and other matters in the Majority Caucus room and met with deputy attorneys general. Because all the senators are Democrats, they all could participate in that discussion behind closed doors.

Soon after the session started, the Senate called a recess for about 15 minutes, during which senators talked quietly to one another on the Senate floor and discussed pushing the vote back until next week.

Ultimately, those who voted against Gorak included Sens. Rosalyn Baker, Donovan Dela Cruz, Kalani English, Mike Gabbard, Brickwood Galuteria, Lorraine Inouye, Kaiali’i Kahele, Gil Keith Agaran, Michelle Kidani, Clarence Nishihara, Maile Shimabukuro, Brian Taniguchi, Jill Tokuda, Glenn Wakai and Ron Kouchi.

Those who voted in favor of Gorak included Sens. Stanley Chang, Will Espero, Josh Green, Harimoto, Ihara, Donna Mercado Kim, Karl Rhoads, Riviere, Ruderman and Thielen.

‘Gorak Is A Scapegoat’

Gorak served as legal counsel for the PUC for three years prior to his appointment by Ige in June. The appointment was controversial because it came just weeks before the commission was expected to vote on the NextEra deal.

Former PUC chair Hermina Morita challenged the appointment in court. Senate President Ronald Kouchi filed an amicus brief in support. The case is ongoing.

Gorak ended up recusing himself from the NextEra vote in July, and the two remaining commissioners rejected the sale. He has continued to serve on the PUC as an interim commissioner since then.

Kouchi backed a decision by a Senate committee led by Sen. Rosalyn Baker to recommend against accepting Gorak’s nomination earlier this month by a vote of 4-3.

In the committee report explaining why she rejected Gorak, Baker wrote that she agreed with his supporters that he is well qualified.

But she wrote she had heard private information that she could not disclose discrediting Gorak’s character. She also brought up how Gorak was appointed.

“Your Committee must carefully consider not only the qualifications and character of any Governor’s nominee, but also the constitutional advise and consent process for gubernatorial appointments, and whether the Executive Branch properly exercised its powers in this process,” she wrote.

Thielen said Friday on the Senate floor that the displeasure surrounding Gorak related to how he was nominated rather than the question of whether to retain him.

“It seems to me to be misdirecting our displeasure at the nominee instead of the nominator,” she said.

Ruderman from the Big Island echoed Thielen, and did not mince words when he stood up to speak.

“We all know this is not about the timing or the process but about the NextEra decision,” he said. “There’s a great desire for payback against someone … Mr. Gorak is a scapegoat for a decision he could not control.”

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