TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest pick for the commission that regulates Florida utilities has a familiar last name.
Gabriella Passidomo, 29, was selected Monday to serve on the powerful five-person Public Service Commission during a high-stakes year for consumers. Her mother is Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples.
The connection is noteworthy because the elder Passidomo is in line to serve as the next president of the Florida Senate. Her job in 2022 will be to win as many Republican Senate seats as possible — a process that will likely involve collecting donations from the utility companies her daughter will regulate.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the younger Passidomo said her family connections did not have to do with the appointment.
“Pretty simply, she was not involved in this process at all,” commissioner Passidomo said of her mother, the senator. “We wanted to keep it that way.”
In an email, a DeSantis spokesperson said Sen. Passidomo’s position had nothing to do with her daughter’s selection, and that the governor is not concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“This line of questioning feels like an attempt to discredit a strong, independent woman and qualified candidate,” said Taryn Fenske, the governor’s spokeswoman. “I can’t help but wonder if you’d still be asking these questions if Sen. Passidomo was a Democrat.”
After this story was initially published online, Sen. Passidomo told the Times her daughter’s new position would pose no ethical conflicts.
“There will never be an instance where she will influence me or I will try to influence her, because that’s not how we operate,” Kathleen Passidomo said in an interview.
The new commissioner graduated from Washington & Lee University’s law school in 2019 and has worked as an attorney at the commission for just under two years. Before that, she interned at the U.S. Department of Energy and Texas-based oil company Primexx Energy Partners. Passidomo is currently enrolled in a Master of Business Administration program at Florida State University to better understand the financial side of utility regulation, according to her application for the position.
She replaces commissioner Julie Brown, a lawyer from Tampa whom DeSantis named secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
DeSantis had a choice of four candidates picked by the 12-member Public Service Commission Nominating Council. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood; Ana Ortega, a policy advisor for the commission; lobbyist and consultant Rosanna Catalano and Passidomo were all up for the job.
Ben Wilcox, research director at watchdog group Integrity Florida, criticized the process by which new commissioners are selected. Having commissioners appointed instead of elected, he said, leaves room for pressure from utilities and politicians.
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“You end up having a selection process like we have today where it is essentially bought and heavily influenced by politics,” he said.
He declined to comment on Passidomo’s qualifications, saying he wasn’t familiar enough with her background.
Mike La Rosa, a former member of the Florida House, was the last commissioner appointed before Passidomo. About three weeks before he was chosen, a political committee he controlled at the time donated $50,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign, which funds the GOP’s Senate election efforts. At the time, the commission nominating council was chaired by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has received thousands in donations from utility companies in 2021. TECO Energy, which houses Tampa Electric Co. and its sister company Peoples Gas, gave $50,000 on Feb. 19, the committee’s third-largest donation this year. Florida Power & Light gave $2,200 on Feb. 5, records show.
Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light stand to gain the most this year from a favorable commission appointment. Commissioners have the power to approve increases to customers’ bills and other measures that directly impact utility bottom lines.
This year, Tampa Electric, which serves much of Hillsborough County, is asking for a 19 percent increase in customer bills to cover $295 million for new solar projects and converting its Big Bend Power Station to natural gas. Florida Power & Light requested just shy of $2 billion more from customers over four years for grid improvements, solar projects and finishing its merge with affiliate Gulf Power Co.
Commissioners recently approved Duke Energy Florida’s increase that was agreed upon by the utility and consumer advocates.
Passidomo’s position pays $135,997 annually.
Sen. Passidomo said political donations do not affect how she treats a given interest group.
“I have a mind of my own, and I have my own beliefs,” the senator said.
Three of the elder Passidomo’s colleagues in the Senate, Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton and Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, serve on the 12-person Public Service Commission Nominating Council, which picked the candidates from which DeSantis chose. At an April 12 meeting of the council, all voting members recommended Passidomo as a finalist.
Gibson said Passidomo had nothing to do with her daughter’s selection.
“Of course people will have a side-eyed look because it’s her daughter. But I read every application,” Gibson said. “For me, it’s not about that she’s a Passidomo.”
Albritton said he felt he had the freedom to vote against Passidomo’s daughter if he thought she was unqualified. Sen. Passidomo is not the type to hold a grudge, Albritton said — particularly over a matter of such public importance.
However, the politics may be complicated for Albritton, who hopes to succeed Passidomo as the future Senate president for 2024-2026. (Florida legislative Republicans pick their leaders years in advance.) When asked whether he supported Passidomo’s daughter because he hoped to maximize his chances to lead Senate Republicans in the future, Albritton said:
“I know it’s easy to say what I’m going to say, but it has the added benefit of being true: No.”