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ComEd CEO says performance, not scandal, should define the utility

Joseph Dominguez says its work in recent years has led the industry in affordability, reliability and green energy.

Joseph Dominguez, Commonwealth Edison’s chief executive officer.
Joseph Dominguez, Commonwealth Edison’s chief executive officer.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

As chief executive officer of ComEd, Joseph Dominguez heads a company operating under a cloud. But he says he has something in his corner he believes will assure progress at the utility whatever the immediate challenges.

It’s the 6,000 people who work for ComEd, who he says have made it the best performing utility in the country. Since taking the CEO job last Aug. 1, Dominguez has been their champion.

In the face of news reports on ComEd and its corporate parent Exelon’s roles in the latest Illinois government scandal — a tentacled creature that touches on the utility’s massive lobbying operation — Dominguez said he’s focused on something else.

“There is no utility in the nation that can make a better case that they’re No. 1 than Commonwealth Edison,” he said.

Whether the standard is affordability, reliability or use of clean energy, ComEd is a top performer, the envy of other utilities, even those in the Exelon family, Dominguez said. Since 2012, the utility has improved reliability by 70%, according to Dominguez, an unprecedented improvement for an industry accustomed to merely incremental changes.

He gives credit for that to ComEd employees. “Nothing prepares you for being in this chair when the workforce is going out and the weather is negative 50 degrees or when it’s super hot and seeing the day-to-day dedication of the people we have here,” he said.

Dominguez said the scandal, which has included two federal subpoenas for Exelon documents and a U.S. securities probe of its lobbying activities, shouldn’t detract from the company’s achievements.

In an interview, Dominguez wouldn’t talk about anything related to what federal investigators are looking at. Nor would he discuss reforms of internal procedures enacted or contemplated.

“At this point, we’re just continuing to cooperate [and] provide information to the government as needed,” he said.

Staying silent must be hard on him. At 57, Dominguez has a background that seems especially apt for ComEd’s situation. He’s a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. And he moved through the ranks of Exelon in general counsel and government relations roles.

Dominguez declined to say whether any prior company executives did anything wrong or to speculate on whether Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is a target of the investigation. ComEd’s lobbying network has multiple ties to Madigan.

At Exelon, the biggest executive change amid the scandal was the sudden retirement in October of Anne Pramaggiore, one of the leading women in Chicago business. Pramaggiore previously held Dominguez’s job at ComEd. She and Exelon have not commented on her departure.

ComEd and Exelon have long been among the most prominent forces in Springfield. Dominguez said ComEd needs to continue its emphasis on lobbying.

“We’re called upon by policymakers to be involved in hundreds of policy issues and rule makings every year,” he said. “That’s just our reality.’’

He said ComEd’s performance will boost its credibility with politicians and the public. Relatively cheap electricity prices in ComEd’s Northern Illinois service territory traditionally have been an economic development draw. State regulators have approved rate reductions for ComEd for three of the past four years.

If ComEd were a state, its electricity cost as a percent of median household income would be lower than anywhere but Utah, according to the utility. At 1.4%, the rate compares to a U.S. average of 2.3%.

Dominguez said 92% percent of ComEd’s power comes from sources that don’t cause air pollution, making it easily the industry leader.

Earlier this month, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul urged the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates ComEd, to revisit its decision allowing the utility to take 38 years to refund $385 million to ratepayers. The money is no longer needed because ComEd’s federal tax rate has been reduced. Raoul contended the refund should occur over five years.

Dominguez disagrees. “The value of that tax break comes to us over that 38-year period of time, so it makes sense to return it to customers over that same period of time,” he said, adding that the ICC has twice ruled unanimously on the issue.

He also must deal with negotiations at City Hall. ComEd’s franchise agreement to operate within Chicago expires at the end of this year. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has talked about demanding answers about the scandal and forcing ComEd to stop customer shutoffs for nonpayment.

“I think we have a joint interest with the administration to do everything possible for our customers that are in financial need,” Dominguez said.

“The company has committed resources to these customers for the last seven, eight years, and we’re going to continue to do that.’’