Chappelle broadens Varnum in energy and communications

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Laura Chappelle in Varnum’s Lansing office

PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE, LEGAL NEWS

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

With the addition of Laura Chappelle, Varnum expands its stores of expertise and talent in two areas of great currency: energy and telecommunications, along with policy work in general.

Chappelle’s credentials are vast and deep. Governor John Engler appointed her Chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) in 2001-2003, after which she served as a commissioner until 2007. She helped write and implement Michigan’s retail electric choice law in 2000, which she is careful to say restructured but did not deregulate the state’s electric industry.

About the bill package that eventually became PA 141, Chappelle says “We really tried to set it up as a balance, to open it up to potential competitors without putting the incumbent utilities at a disadvantage, so that ultimately the customers would win.”

Chappelle feels that the act was successful, despite what detractors may say, even though the main savings went to commercial rather than residential users. Chappelle comments, “It’s true the businesses making up the commercial load were really the ones that took full advantage of the choice laws, but before that, their rates were skewed. Commercial did have higher rates than residential, and they came down. And in part that happened because the competitors really wanted to get the larger commercial customers to get them started successfully.”

Electric choice was scaled back with the 2008 energy bill. Chappelle thinks “we still don’t have quite the right balance,”  but she is a supporter of alternative energy sources, including renewables.

It will be Chappelle’s job to assist companies in sorting all that out, as well as in developing energy businesses and in compliance. She focus on — as her Varnum biography puts it — “Energy, Biomass Energy, Conventional Home Energy, Hydroelectric Power, Waste-to-Energy, Wind Energy, and Environmental,” and will continue to play a legal policy role.

Varnum has already had an excellent energy practice team, and Chappelle says that part of the reason she was attracted to the firm was that her work over the years with the Lansing office, and particularly Eric Schneidewind, had impressed her.  She said she is thrilled to be working with people like Bruce Goodman, and expanding her expertise in the energy field.

In fact, Chappelle’s career seems to be all about not resting on her laurels, so she has followed a varied and sometimes unconventional path.

After graduating from the University of Michigan and receiving her Juris Doctor from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Chappelle started out in a fairly traditional way. Smitten with criminal law, she served as a law clerk for two Saginaw County Circuit Court judges and then was an assistant prosecutor, also in Saginaw County.

But then she applied for — and won, even though she was pregnant with her first son — the position of aide to West Michigan’s own William Van Regenmorter, the recently-deceased legislator whose place in the annals of criminal law history has been assured by his creation of the ground-breaking Victims Rights Act of 1985.

Her praise for Van Regenmorter is unstinting. “Everybody could take a page out of his book. He was such a powerful senator but as soon as you met him, he said, ‘Call me Bill’ — that speaks volumes about the man and his integrity and his attitude. I’ve really been blessed with the people I’ve worked for,” she adds.

Next in that line of employers was Speaker Paul Hillegonds, for whom she was a staff attorney, followed by a period as the regulatory affairs advisor to the Michigan House of Representatives and then a slight transition to Republican policy staff.

Governor John Engler, who was in office from 1994-2002, was her next boss. Her role with the governor’s office was as regulatory affairs coordinator, as well as deputy legal counsel.

While MPSC Chair, Chappelle was also instrumental in developing Michigan’s “Broadband” law, which coordinated local and state right-of-way regulations for telecommunications and Internet service providers. The so-called METRO (Metropolitan Extension Telecommunication Rights-of-Way Oversight) ACT, PA 48 of 2002, was intended to stimulate the availability of affordable high-speed Internet connections.

“We were trying to facilitate competition in broadband services, and people thought Michigan would really benefit from a streamlined system of rules, regulations, and pricing,” comments Chappelle.

After her time on the MPSC, she started Chappelle Consulting LLC, serving as a regulatory consultant. She also taught at Michigan State University College of Law. In 2011, she served on the legal transition team for Governor Rick Snyder.

And now Varnum. Chappelle says, “I don’t know if a lot of attorneys are like this, but I love doing different things. I like getting to know an issue very well, and then I might get just a little bit bored,” she says with a brief laugh. “Maybe I’m a rare bird — look how long I’ve stayed doing policy work — but I know I love a challenge.”

Beyond her work in the state, Chappelle has held key positions in regional and national organizations. She was President of the Organization of MISO States (OMS) in 2007, having previously served as its treasurer in 2003. OMS represents the interests of  Midwest states and provincial authorities within the Midwest ISO footprint. (ISO stands for Independent System Operator, an organization formed under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.)

She was Vice-Chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), Electricity Committee, from 2004 to 2007, and Chair of NARUC’s Broadband over Power Line Task Force. She served as Co-Chair of the Working Group of the Consumer Energy Council of America (2004-2005). In 2002, she co-chaired the National Governors Association’s Task Force on Electricity Infrastructure in 2002, and was appointed to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Board.

Chappelle and her husband, also an attorney who now heads up Strathmore Development, have four children, with the youngest and only girl currently nine years old.

Chappelle was born Laura Vargas in Saginaw, and shows intense pride in her Hispanic background, a pride founded in her admiration and respect for her father, Frank Vargas. Though his own parents had little education, many members of her father’s family were attorneys, and an uncle was a Mexican Supreme Court Justice.

“My father is proud of all of his children, but I know somewhere there’s a soft spot that I’m carrying on this Vargas tradition of law.

“I don’t think anybody is as proud of me joining Varnum as my dad,”
she adds.