When biochemistry grad student Amanda Whittaker’s Con Edison bill tripled last month, she was so frustrated by the increase that she blasted out a letter to the Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency for public utilities.

“As a graduate student, money is perpetually tight,” the doctorate candidate wrote on the commission’s public complaint webpage, explaining that she had to take out $10,000 in student loans to supplement her $30,000 annual teaching stipend from Hunter College. Her share of the rent on a three-bedroom apartment in Astoria is $950.

“I live hand-to-mouth and barely have enough money to eat, let alone enjoy all that New York has to offer,” she added. “I depend on a razor-thin margin to keep the lights on.”

Listen to reporter Janon Fisher discuss the role of Special Counsel for Ratepayer Protection Rory Lancman:

The jump in New Yorkers' energy costs came in part because of a 13% rate hike for Con Ed customers that went into effect in 2020. Then, this February, the utility said another recent increase was caused by a spike in demand that caused natural gas prices to jump.

The double whammy caused bills to double or even triple last month, leading to a chorus of outrage from utility customers over the megawatt hole the state utility companies had blown in their budgets. Elected officials, including the governor and state attorney general, promised to hold the utility accountable.

But one voice was conspicuously silent: Special Counsel for Ratepayer Protection Rory Lancman, a former state and city lawmaker who was tapped by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in October of 2020 to be the first in-house watchdog for utility customers.

According to the announcement of Lancman’s appointment, he would represent the interests of residential and commercial customers and hold hearings, conduct investigations and participate in Public Service Commission proceedings. He would have subpoena power to compel testimony or get records — in sum he would ensure that the “utilities are responding adequately to consumers.”

Now, after two years in the nascent role, Lancman is stepping down. His accomplishments have largely been obscure to the public, raising questions over whether he served cash-strapped energy customers or the former governor who appointed him.

One thing advocates, ratepayers and state legislators agree on: Without a watchdog present, life in the city could get a lot more expensive.

“If sudden rate hikes like this continue, many New Yorkers like me will not be able to live and work (let alone work safely) in the city,” Whittaker said in her letter.

Cuomo appointee

Lancman was appointed to the Department of Public Service, which falls under the Public Service Commission, in November 2020.

His mandate was essentially billed as an advocate, as outlined in a press release announcing his appointment. Lancman, according to the statement, was responsible for safeguarding “the interests of ratepayers and holding accountable those utilities.”

The $189,000-a-year job was created against a backdrop of several high-profile battles Cuomo had waged with the state’s utility companies.

However, the only investigation that appears on the office’s website is a 2021 probe into the prolonged outages and lack of preparedness of five utility companies, including Con Edison, after Tropical Storm Isaias, which knocked out power for nearly 1 million New Yorkers. Some residents in Queens and Long Island remained without electricity for weeks. The probe was started before Lancman’s position was created and appeared to sprawl over many utility company transgressions, even covering settlements for steam service disruptions reaching back to 2018. Cuomo touted it as delivering nearly $190 million in settlements, but individual commercial reimbursement claims for food and medicine were capped at under $11,000, and residential reimbursements were limited to $540 with receipts, $230 without.

Non-traditional advocate

Contrary to how his role was billed to New Yorkers, Lancman told Gothamist that he was never supposed to be a go-between for ratepayers and the utility companies, but rather a representative for Cuomo to ensure the former governor’s policies were executed properly.

“It's very much a high-level legal position in terms of enforcing the law and regulations against the utilities and also a policy level position,” he said, after reviewing the announcement of his appointment. “That doesn't mean that I don't care or take the complaints that find their way to me, but there's no way to read this announcement and conclude that my primary role is to handle and resolve individual customer complaints.”

Lancman acknowledged that his webpage fails to represent the full scope of his work, but said he had participated in many efforts on behalf of energy consumers. Along with helping craft a settlement on behalf of Con Edison and PSE&G customers, Lancman oversaw a study to convert a private Long Island water company into a public entity, and an effort to broaden rural broadband service upstate.

“No political deal”

To understand how Lancman landed the role, it helps to look at the 2019 race for Queens district attorney, in which he was a candidate.

Lancman, who made $148,000 as a Councilmember representing Queens, took the ratepayer protection position two years before he was term-limited out of office and after his bid for the borough’s top prosecutor failed.

The 2019 Queens DA election came down to a pitched battle between long-time Queens Democratic machine insider Melinda Katz and Tiffany Cabán, a candidate with the progressive Working Families Party, which Cuomo tried to destroy by pushing a change in election rules that would force them off the ballot.

Cuomo eventually waded into the race, backing Katz after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez backed Cabán.

Lancman bowed out and threw his endorsement to Katz, though he seemed more ideologically aligned with Cabán. It was an election with razor-thin margins – Cabán lost by 60 votes.

Lancman’s last-minute political 180 raised suspicions among reporters, who asked at his press conference endorsing Katz in June that year if he had made a deal to drop out. He denied any quid pro quo.

“Nobody offered me anything to get out of this race,” he said at the news conference. “That’s not the way it works.”

When pressed recently by Gothamist, he once again denied the allegation.

“There was no political deal,” he said. “No political machinations. I had no communication with the governor.”

Lancman cited his skill set as an attorney as a big selling point in getting the special counsel for ratepayer protection job.

“[Cuomo] felt someone like me — with my legal background, my policy background, my political background — could bring a gubernatorial level focus to some issues that were important to him in this arena, whether it's utility accountability or broadband expansion, or his green energy agenda,” Lancman said.

Advocates see it differently.

“What it looked like to me is that this was just kind of another special appointment for Cuomo,” said Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator with the Sane Energy Project, an advocacy group pushing for 100% renewable energy sources. “One of his good old boys who would help him prop up his agenda.”

Richard Berkley, head of the Public Utility Law Project, a watchdog group that pushes for affordable energy rates, echoed the sentiment.

“I haven't seen him doing a whole lot of work this year," he said. "And I guess, probably part of last year, but I don't really find that surprising. The predilection at the Department of Public Service is to do things quietly a lot of the time.”

In October 2021, Sane Energy reached out to Gov. Kathy Hochul and Lancman, requesting a review of a National Grid rate hike that would pay for a North Brooklyn pipeline and other fossil fuel projects in the city and Long Island.

Ziesche said they never heard back. She said she’d forgotten that Lancman was on the job until asked by Gothamist.

“I don’t really know what he’s doing for consumers,” she said.

New role, new title

Lancman wouldn’t say why he is leaving the role, but a spokesperson for Hochul said his replacement would more closely model a traditional ratepayer advocate as seen in other parts of the country.

“The governor’s office will ensure that the PSC’s new Consumer Advocate, in conjunction with the Department of State’s Utility Intervention Unit, provides financial safeguards and much-needed assistance in rate-case reviews to protect New Yorkers from volatile billing,” Hochul’s spokesperson, Madia Coleman, said.

New York is behind when it comes to creating the position that’s already established in 43 other states.

The independent Ohio Consumer Counsel, for example, routinely butts heads with that state’s Public Utilities Commission, most recently it sued to obtain an audit from the midwest utility FirstEnergy which allegedly tried to bribe a commission chairman.

In Connecticut, ratepayer advocate David Silverstone is trying to recoup $2.6 million in legal fees incurred by members of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative in their ongoing federal bribery case.

Stefanie Brand, the former head of New Jersey’s Division of Rate Counsel, was a prominent foil for utilities looking to increase costs for customers.

“New York is an outlier on this where we don't have a consumer Public Advocate on the PSC,” state Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island said. She and Bronx Assemblymember Jeff Dinowitz pushed legislation that would create one last year, but after it passed both chambers, Hochul vetoed it, saying it was duplicative of her efforts.

Recently, Savino reintroduced the bill again. Dinowitz promised to do the same.

The Department of Public Service posted the position in January and expects to make a hire in the next few weeks, according to spokesperson James Denn.

Still, state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens said putting the consumer advocacy role within the PSC doesn’t work.

“The problem we've had with the Public Service Commission is it's not servicing the public,” Gianaris said. “Representatives there are too often aligned with utilities they're supposed to be regulating. The idea is that it’s someone whose job it is to look out for the ratepayers of the city.”

This article has been updated to clarify that supply chain issues did not lead to a jump in natural gas prices.