Two state lawmakers are raising red flags over the legal work Tom Gorak was doing on the side while serving full-time as general counsel of the state Public Utilities Commission.

Gorak is no longer general counsel but is up for Senate confirmation next legislative session, which opens Jan. 18, having been appointed in June to serve on an interim basis as one of the commission’s three members.

Sens. Lorraine Inouye, chair of the Transportation and Energy Committee, and Donovan Dela Cruz, vice chair, have asked the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Department of the Attorney General to address several questions they have about the legal services Gorak provided for mainland clients appearing before federal energy regulators.

PUC Appointment Thomas Gorak. 29 june 2016
Gov. David Ige’s interim appointment of Tom Gorak, left, to the Public Utilities commission is facing another round of scrutiny from state lawmakers who will be deciding next legislative session whether to confirm him. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Their two-page letter to Richard Platel, chief disciplinary counsel, requests that his office look into potential violations of the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct and the conflicts Gorak may have had in representing clients from his law firm for the past three years while working as the commission’s chief attorney on matters involving similar issues and parties.

PUC Chair Randy Iwase, who recommended Gov. David Ige appoint Gorak, called the senators’ letter “very disappointing” and an attempt to “besmirch the reputation of a good man.”

“Tom Gorak is one of the most qualified nominees we’ve had in years,” Iwase said. “To have this kind of game played is a reason I think that good, extremely qualified people are discouraged from applying for important positions in government.”

Gorak’s 2016 financial disclosure statement, filed in August with the state Ethics Commission, values the side work done by his law firm, Gorak and Bay, at between $50,000 and $100,000.

His statement notes the work was done for clients located primarily in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but does not say who they were or describe the nature of the services provided.

Senator Lorraine Inouye questions Mayor caldwell during senate ways and means hearing. 7 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sen. Lorraine Inouye said she wants Public Utilities Commission nominees thoroughly vetted. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige’s decision to replace Commissioner Mike Champley with Gorak came just days before the commission was expected to release its final decision on the $4.3 billion deal to sell Hawaiian Electric Industries to Florida-based NextEra Energy — the biggest merger of its kind in Hawaii history.

Champley had worked with the other two commissioners for the previous 18 months on the proposed buyout, but the governor opted to not keep him on past the June 30 expiration of his term on the commission.

The move drew the ire of the commission’s former chair, Mina Morita, as well as Senate leaders and some in the energy industry who saw it as undue political influence on the merger.

The commission rejected the NextEra deal in a 2-0 vote July 15. Iwase and Commissioner Lorraine Akiba voted against it and Gorak abstained.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is one of two senators raising questions about the legal work Tom Gorak was doing on the side while he was general counsel for the Public Utilities Commission. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“Because this is a very controversial appointment, I started doing my due diligence in making sure that I prepare myself,” Inouye said when asked why she sent the letter about Gorak.

The appointment is expected to be heard by the Consumer Protection Committee, chaired by Sen. Roz Baker, and then go before the full Senate for final approval.

Given the importance of the Public Utilities Commission in shaping the state’s energy future, not to mention all the other utility matters it oversees, Inouye said it’s particularly important for Gorak to be properly scrutinized.

“This commission is really important to this state — it’s huge,” she said. “We need to make sure our commissioners are vetted.”

Dela Cruz declined to comment, deferring to Inouye as chair of the energy committee.

Inouye said the attorney general’s office and Office of Disciplinary Counsel have not responded yet.

Gorak did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Iwase noted the similarities between the senators’ letter and an anonymous “smear complaint”  in July. It was a 10-page letter apparently intended for the Office of Disciplinary Counsel that raised similar concerns but was never actually sent to the agency.

“This is supposed to be a confidential process,” Iwase said. “The similarities between this complaint and the ODC smear complaint is not coincidental.”

Read the senators’ letter below.

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