Illinois utility watchdog Martin Cohen fell two state Senate votes shy of being appointed the new chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) on Thursday. He is the first ICC appointee ever rejected by the state Senate.

Cohen was a controversial appointment from the beginning. Cohen had been director of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) for the last 12 years and had been at CUB for a total of 20 years fighting hundreds of battles with the utilities over rates, operations and deregulation. CUB is a nonprofit statewide utility watchdog organization created by the state legislature to represent the interests of residential and small-business utility customers.

Cohen was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in September and over the last month a well orchestrated public relations campaign against him by the state’s utilities apparently succeeded in getting his appointment rejected.

Blagojevich’s record on hirings and appointments also probably didn’t help Cohen’s chances. There currently is a federal grand jury investigation into Blagojevich’s hirings at various state agencies over the last few years.

The Democrat-controlled state Senate voted only 28 in favor of Cohen’s appointment and 22 against. He needed 30 votes in favor for his appointment to be approved.

CUB called it a “slap in the face of consumers across Illinois.”

“At a time when we have record gas prices, record heating bills and are facing billions of dollars in electric rate hikes, the senate’s vote today sends the wrong message to consumers,” CUB’s new executive director, David Kolata, said. “The truth is that ComEd and the other utilities would have gotten a fairer hearing from Marty Cohen than consumers usually get from the ICC.”

In the three weeks since his nomination, “Cohen has endured a relentless, public attack by ComEd and others determined to stop his appointment,” CUB said. ComEd denied having ever opposed Cohen’s appointment. “ComEd has taken no position on Marty Cohen’s confirmation,” said ComEd spokeswoman Judy Rader. “We haven’t advocated one way or another.”

CUB said ComEd has “close to $1 billion in rate hikes at stake and the company fears an ICC chairman who would be fair to consumers when deciding those cases.”

State regulators are in the process of deciding whether ComEd and Ameren can use a “reverse auction” process for procuring power in the competitive market starting in 2007. Blagojevich has sent letters to the ICC arguing against the proposals, saying they would result in unjustified rate increases for customers.

Both Ameren and ComEd parent company Exelon have said their regulated utility units in Illinois could slide into bankruptcy if Illinois’ governor prevails in a dispute over deregulating the state’s power markets.

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