From quiet delegate to center of PSC storm

March 15, 2006|By DAVID NITKIN | DAVID NITKIN,SUN REPORTER

Kenneth D. Schisler, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, rushed between legislative committee rooms and the governor's office yesterday, defending the way his regulatory agency has responded to a looming 72 percent electric rate increase due to hit consumers this summer.

The former delegate from the Eastern Shore has suddenly become far more visible - and a much bigger target - then he was as a young backbencher known for his affable demeanor and conservative views.

Old colleagues in Annapolis are heaping criticism on Schisler, saying he oversaw the terminations of high-level commission staff members who had the knowledge and ability to stand up to utility companies such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly referred to Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler as part of a roving band of allies of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. dispatched to state agencies to root out workers deemed disloyal to the governor. The sentence should have said that PSC chief of staff Craig Chesek, not Schisler, was considered part of the group.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, has called for Schisler's resignation, launching an online petition drive for his ouster that the mayor said had garnered 1,000 signatures in a few hours.

But Schisler, 36, is standing firm. He said his agency has no legal authority to demand lower rates for consumers after legislatively imposed caps on electricity rates come off this summer.

"The commission did not have any jurisdiction to deny that price," Schisler said. "There simply were no mistakes."

Outside forces

Maryland legislators who passed a deregulation law in 1999 had expected competition to drive prices down after the caps were lifted. But the energy markets swerved in the opposite direction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and unrest in the Middle East.

Leading Democrats say that Schisler, who earned his law degree while serving in the General Assembly, might have the ability needed to serve as the state's top utilities regulator in such a climate. But they also say he might not have full control of the agency in a Republican administration striving to be viewed as friendly to business.

Schisler got help in commission housecleaning from Craig Chesek, a lawyer and former congressional staffer to then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Democrats say Schisler was part of a roving band of operatives who rooted out workers in several state agencies they viewed as disloyal. Another former Ehrlich staffer, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., dubbed the "Prince of Darkness" by the governor, pursued his role so aggressively that his activities triggered a legislative probe of the Ehrlich administration's hiring and firing practices.

Schisler "certainly is a knowledgeable enough guy," said Michael E. Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates. "The big question is, is he guiding the process or is someone guiding him through it? Who's the person behind the curtain making all this happen? I don't believe it's Ken Schisler."

Allies and opponents describe Schisler as a capable and friendly public official who earned the respect of many lawmakers after starting out as the most junior member of a severely outnumbered minority party.

Schisler had yet to complete a college degree and was barely old enough to buy a beer when he was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1990.

While the lanky, baby-faced, 21-year-old plugged away at his Salisbury State University biology courses, he followed the path of many ambitious novice legislators: He kept his mouth shut.

"He was kind of quiet the first year or two, like most new lawmakers," said Del. George C. Edwards of Garrett County, the House Republican leader.

Schisler grew up before the eyes of his colleagues, gaining an aura of self-assurance and displaying a willingness to dive into tedious issues such as utilities deregulation. He married, had three daughters and enrolled in the University of Maryland Law School, graduating in 1998.

After Ehrlich was elected governor, Schisler was selected by GOP colleagues as minority whip - the second-highest position in the Republican caucus and one that helps promote the governor's agenda in the House.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, recalls being on the opposing side of Schisler on many debates in the House Environmental Matters Committee, where Frosh served before his election to the Senate in 1994.

Supports business

Schisler "was inclined usually to support the viewpoint of business in the context of when it was business versus consumers, or support developers when it was the context of environmental protection versus developers," Frosh said.

When Ehrlich appointed Schisler to a five-year Public Service Commission term in 2003, Democrats held their tongues.

But soon after, Schisler fired five top agency staff members without conferring with other commissioners.

"He lobotomized the Public Service Commission at a time when the expertise of these individuals was more important than it had been for several decades," Frosh said.

Less than a year later, evidence surfaced that the Ehrlich administration had been expecting turnover on the PSC.

In an e-mail discussion disclosed after a public records request, Steffen told a friend that Chesek was starting as chief of staff at the commission and that "once Schisler is confirmed as PSC Director, they can start cleaning house."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

Kenneth D. Schisler

Position: Chairman, Public Service Commission

Date of birth: July 31, 1969

Education: Bachelor of science in biology, Salisbury State University, 1992; J.D., University of Maryland School of Law, 1998

Background: Republican delegate representing parts of Caroline, Dorchester, Talbot and Wicomico counties, 1991-2003; former House Republican whip, 2002-2003; member of Task Force to Study Retail Electric Competition and the Restructuring of the Electric Utility Industry, 1997-1998

Personal: Married; 3 daughters

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