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FirstEnergy Attempts To Move Past Scandal-Ridden Past

 Plumes of steam drift from the cooling tower of FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio, in 2017.
Ron Schwane
Plumes of steam drift from the cooling tower of FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio, in 2017.

One of Ohio's largest utility companies is attempting to turn the page on a scandal-ridden couple of years. But accountability concerns still linger as FirstEnergy looks at its plans for the future.

FirstEnergy made waves in July when it signed a deferred prosecution agreement, admitting to its role in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme to pass a nuclear power plant bailout, and paying a settlement of $230 million. That deferred prosecution, essentially a plea agreement for companies, stated that the utility paid millions of dollars to former House Speaker Larry Householder to pass the bailout, millions to a dark money group to secretly advocate for that bailout, and millions of dollars to former PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo for preferential treatment.

FirstEnergy CEO Steve Strah took over leadership after the accusations against the company and former executives first came to light and several were fired. Strah said it will take time to repair the company’s reputation.

"You really do have to earn it by deeds, not just by words. And I'm starting to feel that as we continue down this path of rebuilding trust and confidence," Strah said.

Strah said FirstEnergy is working to rebuild that trust through steps like creating a new Compliance Oversight Subcommittee and other internal shakeups. He said these steps are important as the company looks to prepare for future energy issues.

FirstEnergy is looking to prepare for the next evolution of energy transmission while weathering the storm of the bribery scandal. As a transmission and distribution company, Strah said FirstEnergy is keeping a close eye on the development and growth of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, as well as budding technologies like microgrids and battery storage.

"We need to prepare the grid for the entry of those things over the next ten to 20 year period. So we, as a utility, have a lot of work to do to be able to anticipate those needs and be able to integrate those new opportunities onto our system."

Strah said the company wants to put its past in the rearview mirror, and their advocacy for new policies will look different at the Statehouse, where FirstEnergy used to be a lobbying juggernaut.

Rachel Belz with Ohio Citizen Action, a grassroots group advocating for energy consumers, is not so quick to let FirstEnergy move on from its scandal. "FirstEnergy wants to look in the rearview mirror because they're driving away from the mess they created," Belz said.

Belz has seen firsthand FirstEnergy's lobbying efforts over the years. She said FirstEnergy should only be advocating for changes in policy if it specifically helps customers.

"The bottom line is FirstEnergy is only ever about FirstEnergy, and they haven't learned their lesson in my mind. They should still be in timeout because nothing has changed yet."

Strah on the other hand said it's important for FirstEnergy to keep moving forward for its more than 1 million customers and thousands of employees.

"We intend on engaging appropriately and in a very open context in terms of how we can be part of a successful moving ahead," said Strah.

Several components of the bailout bill, HB6, have been revoked. That includes the nuclear subsidies.

As FirstEnergy looks to move ahead, two defendants in the bribery case are preparing for trial in 2022. Former speaker Householder and former FirstEnergy lobbyist Matt Borges, also the ex-chair of the Ohio Republican Party, have pleaded not guilty in what’s been described as the largest corruption case in state history.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.