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PUCO defers investigation at request of federal investigators

The Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, Ohio
Dan Konik
Ohio Public Radio

The Public Utility Commission of Ohio voted Wednesday to pause four state investigations tied to the First Energy bribery scandal.

The investigations will be stayed for six months after federal prosecutors asked for the pause on Aug. 16.

“In his letter to the PUCO, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker specifically requested a six-month stay in our pending investigations because it could ‘directly interfere with or impede the United States ongoing investigation,’” said PUCO Chair Jenifer French.

Commissioner Daniel Conway said at the commission’s meeting that the decision doesn’t mean the investigation won’t continue following the stay, but the commission’s investigation should stay clear of hampering the criminal, federal investigation.

Conway said the federal prosecutors have “determined that we are at that point where we are creating risks” to that investigation.

Two of the PUCO’s investigations involve audits of money collected through riders by the electric company. Another looks at corporate compliance with requirements keeping certain types of work divided. The fourth is examining if FirstEnergy paid for political expenses with ratepayer money.

Conway said he’d rather keep the investigations open.

“My preference in a vacuum would be to continue to move forward to conclusions in our investigations. But we aren't operating in a vacuum,” Conway said, and to refuse the stay would create “material risks to the ongoing criminal investigation and proceeding.”

French said the commission will not drop the investigations.

“Let me also be clear, though, this is a temporary stay and the PUCO will continue with our investigations into these four cases when it is appropriate to do so,” French said.

Larry Householder, the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, and former FirstEnergy lobbyist Matt Borges are scheduled to go on trial in January in federal court.

Federal prosecutors said Householder operated a dark money group that received millions of dollars from FirstEnergy.

The Akron-based utility has admitted in a deferred prosecution to paying bribe money to Householder and other government officials. FirstEnergy said the money was "in exchange for specific official action for FirstEnergy Corp.’s benefit."

Investigators allege that includes HB6, a sweeping energy law passed in 2019. The law accomplished several legislative goals for FirstEnergy such as a $1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.