When Martin Cohen was appointed head of the Illinois Commerce Commission, the regulatory body that oversees utilities in the state, he joined a very small fraternity.
Cohen took the post in September 2005 pending confirmation by state lawmakers, becoming only the nation's eighth utility commissioner since 2004 to have a background as a consumer advocate. In his former role as executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, he had been a harsh critic of the state's big power companies.
But his confirmation was not to be.
The Illinois Senate, which has several members who receive generous campaign contributions from those same companies, fell two votes shy of the majority needed to confirm him. He lost his job in October.
One senator told a reporter that Cohen "has a certain bias against utility companies."
Cohen's CUB job was to represent citizens in rate cases. That led a handful of key senators to accuse him of harboring a conflict of interest, though not an economic one.
"They claim that my conflict is some inherent bias I have against utility companies," he told the Center. "It's almost like they accuse me of having some sort of genetic defect – it's preposterous."
Cohen said that during the confirmation process one senator asked whether he would accept the president of Commonwealth Edison, the dominant local utility, as a member of the commission. Cohen said if he were to "sell all his stock, leave his retirement program and take a 95 percent pay cut, we would welcome him."
The intrusion of politics into deciding who will sit on a board created to look out for the public interest is not uncommon. Commissioners are much more likely to have a background in politics or the utility industry than experience as consumer advocates.