The nation's top utilities regulator, who oversaw the approval of the merger between Progress Energy and Duke Energy last month, staunchly defended the right of a corporate board to fire the CEO and replace him at will.
The comments by Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, suggest that even if such a CEO switch is unpopular with other board members, employees and state regulators, "everybody needs to move on."
Wellinghoff made his comments Tuesday at an industry conference in Washington. His remarks were reported by Bloomberg News.
Wellinghoff's remarks came in response to reporters' questions about Charlotte-based Duke's firing of CEO Bill Johnson, 58, just hours after the merger was completed July 2. Wellinghoff noted that he's not specifically discussing Duke or Johnson because the FERC docket on the matter remains open and he can't comment on it, Bloomberg reported.
"I believe that a board of directors of a utility has the right to decide whoever they want to run the utility," Wellinghoff said at a Platts Energy Podium. "Once the board of directors does that, regardless of their timing, I think everybody needs to move on."
Johnson's firing unleashed a firestorm of protest. The N.C. Utilities Commission and the state Attorney General have both launched investigations into the matter.
The utilities commission approved the $32 billion merger just days before Johnson was fired. The commission issued its approval on the expectation that Johnson, who had been CEO of Raleigh-based Progress since 2007, would be CEO of the combined company, and is now investigating whether it was deliberately misled.
Those who have spoken out against Johnson's dismissal include former Progress board members and Duke board members who came from Progress and voted against Johnson's ouster.
In testimony before the utilities commission, a pair of Duke board members and Duke CEO Jim Rogers said that Johnson was let go because his leadership style is incompatible with Duke's corporate culture. Rogers called Johnson "autocratic" while board members Ann Gray and Michael Browning said they had doubts about him for many months and their doubts were confirmed during months of observation.