Jim O'Connor, who raised election fraud claims, picked to lead Corporation Commission
Arizona utility regulators on Tuesday elected Republican Jim O'Connor as their chairman, though the vote was not unanimous because he would not pledge to abandon his quest to tackle election fraud concerns from his office.
The five members of the Arizona Corporation Commission serve the entire state and on Tuesday welcomed newly elected Republicans Kevin Thompson and Nick Myers. The members appoint their chairperson, who runs the public meetings and sets the agenda.
Last year, O'Connor wanted the commission to investigate the state's "voting machines" in hopes that counties would abandon the use of modern technology and conduct the 2022 election "the old-fashioned way." His effort failed amid legal concerns that the subject was beyond the commission's purview.
The Corporation Commission regulates electric, water and gas utilities, and has oversight of securities investing, pipeline safety and railroad crossings. Elections are not part of its duties, but O'Connor has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to persuade his peers that they can investigate election issues because they have the authority to revoke the corporate charter of businesses that don't comply with state law.
Commissioner Anna Tovar, now the lone Democrat on the commission, nominated O'Connor for the chairman position. But Republican Lea Márquez Peterson, who has served as chairwoman the past two years, said she could support O'Connor only if he would abandon his pursuit of an investigation of election equipment.
"I truly believe it is the role of the state Legislature, the counties, the election officials. So I would not like to see the commission lead on an election fraud issue," Márquez Peterson said.
She said she received legal advice on the issue last year when she declined to place O'Connor's proposed investigation on a meeting agenda.
O'Connor said he couldn't make that promise.
"I too am receiving legal advice, and until I've received the fullness of that advice I can't comment with respect to whether we will tackle that issue," O'Connor said.
O'Connor also wrote to county officials around the state with his concerns over voting equipment after he attended a "Moment of Truth" seminar in Springfield, Missouri, which was hosted by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow in late August. Cochise County officials pursued their own concerns over voting equipment, and only certified their election results in early December under a court order.
However, O'Connor conceded that a legal avenue for the commission to pursue election concerns is not apparent.
The Corporation Commission's powers are set in Article 15 of the Arizona Constitution, which makes no reference to authority over elections.
"I can assure you there is nothing in statute, in law, in court opinions that seems to make way for us to tackle that as of today's date," O'Connor said.
O'Connor's comments failed to persuade Márquez Peterson and she voted against him serving as chairman. He won on a 4-1 vote.
O'Connor made previous controversial moves
O'Connor caused a stir in 2021 when he tried to convince leaders of major state utilities not to have workers get the COVID-19 vaccine, telling The Arizona Republic at the time the shots were turning people into "potted plants ... human vegetables."
There is no evidence COVID-19 vaccines have caused the problems O'Connor described.
O'Connor lost a primary bid for a seat on the Corporation Commission in 2018 and initially didn't plan to run in 2020. But when other Republicans were kicked off the ballot and the party didn't have enough candidates for all three seats on the ballot that year, he mounted a write-in campaign that eventually landed him in his first public office.
Tovar and O'Connor have found an unlikely bipartisan alliance on some issues at the commission.
In 2021, they reached a compromise regarding a requirement to eventually require utilities to rely on 100% carbon free energy in the state.
But then a year ago, O'Connor voted against that deal, saying state rules were not necessary.
It was the second time a Republican commissioner changed their mind after giving the rules initial support. Márquez Peterson initially voted for clean-energy rules in 2020, but opposed the same rules months later when they came up for final approval.
New commissioners outline priorities for consumers
Before the chairman vote, commissioners heard farewell statements from two outgoing members and held swearing-in ceremonies for their replacements.
Democrat Sandra Kennedy failed to win another term in November, while Republican Justin Olson didn't run for a second term on the commission, instead running for Congress and losing in the primary.
Replacing them are Myers, who served as a policy advisor for Olson, and Thompson, who most recently served on the Mesa City Council.
“The ratepayer experience is not a partisan issue,” Thompson said after taking his oath of office. “For next four year everything I focus on will be protecting consumer, ensuring our energy grid is resilient and reliable and making sure the customer has a great experience when working with the commission, and moving Arizona from the bottom of our regulatory uncertainty to the top."
Both he and Myers discussed a desire to increase the budget for the commission, fill vacant positions and raise pay for the staff of approximately 250 policy analysts, safety inspectors, lawyers and other experts.
"We want to definitely get the pay scales where they need to be at the commission, but more importantly we need to staff the commission,” Myers said. “An understaffed workplace means you are rushing through everything. That is a big problem.”
Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at email@example.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Jim O'Connor selected as chairman of Arizona Corporation Commission