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FirstEnergy Deal With Feds Increases Calls For More Transparency

The entrance to Energy Harbor's Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.
Ron Schwane
Associated Press
The entrance to Energy Harbor's Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Oak Harbor, Ohio.

FirstEnergy will pay a $230 million fine ina plea dealwith federal prosecutors in the federal investigation into the $1.6 billion bailout for Ohio’s two nuclear energy plants. But some argue state leaders have not done enough to prevent back room dealing that can lead to scandals like this.

FirstEnergy Corp’s plea comes in the $61 million bribery case in which prosecutors say Republican former Speaker Larry Householder and the other defendants used FirstEnergy money to pass the bailout known as House Bill 6. FirstEnergy’s former subsidiary owned the power plants.

But some agrue the deal underscores the need to look further.

“We should not look at this as a one off," said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio.

Turcer points out a string of scandals involving charter schools, payday lending and Coingate, the questionable investments made involving Bureau of Workers Compensation funds in 2005. She also said this latest scandal shows the need for something she’s been clamoring for for years – disclosure of who’s donating money and where.

“If we don’t create greater transparency, we are just going to end up where we started. We are just going to have scandal after embarrassing scandal after embarrassing scandal. And that means we need to actually create greater transparency so that our elected officials are accountable to everyday Ohioans, to the voters, rather than wealthy special interests," Turcer said.

Bruce Weston of the Ohio Consumers Counsel, the agency charged with representing consumers, agrees transparency is needed.

“Justice is a longer road and that road should lead to state reforms. Reforms that curb the utilities political influence," Weston said.

He said it’s utility customers who end up paying the price.

The Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Vipal Patel, said transparency in this case was difficult because FirstEnergy and others involved in the scandal made use of those dark money groups.

“This effort would not have been possible both in the nature and money provided without the use of 501(c)4s. These are supposed to be, according to code, social welfare organizations. Right? Social welfare organizations. Do you all see a lot of social welfare going on? I don’t," he said.

As part of this agreement, Patel said FirstEnergy will make its 501(c)4 donations transparent to the public. But that’s only for this calendar year on, not for the past couple of years when the wrongdoing is alleged to have taken place.

Use of 501(c)4s is defended by attorneys for Householder, who was expelled from the House last month. They said the money that went to Generation Now, a non-profit entity that fought a potential repeal of the bailout, were political contributions protected by the First Amendment. Householder has maintained his innocence.

The agreement also shows FirstEnergy paid $4.3 million to a public official thought to be the former head of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo. His house was raided last year and he resigned, but has not been charged with any crimes.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who appointed Randazzo as PUCO chair, said in a written statement if Randazzo has done something improper, DeWine didn’t know about it.

DeWine made the appointment despite warnings from ......

“As I have consistently said, we understood that Sam Randazzo had worked for manufacturing companies, energy companies, and consumers, and that he had done work for First Energy. Sam Randazzo was a well-known subject-matter expert in energy issues" DeWine said in a statement. “If, as stated in the court documents, Sam Randazzo committed acts to improperly benefit First Energy, his motives were not known by me or my staff."

The governor also said all the money FirstEnergy contributed to his campaign would be donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, who is running in the Democratic primary to challenge DeWine’s re-election next year said it is time for DeWine to tell Ohioans what and when he knew about FirstEnergy's dealings. She’s made stopping public corruption part of her platform by requiring more transparency.

“We have to root this out. It requires action. And frankly, since nobody is willing to do anything because they have all benefitted from this corrupt system, it’s time for fresh leadership," Whaley said.

But controversy surrounding HB 6 was oscillating like a fan on a hot summer day during the 2020 election, yet few politicians were put on the hot seat over it.

As Common Cause’s Turcer points out, previous legislation to increase accountability has been put on the back burner. So it’s questionable what impact, if any, this issue will have in the minds of voters next fall.

Jo Ingles is a professional journalist who covers politics and Ohio government for the Ohio Public Radio and Television for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. She reports on issues of importance to Ohioans including education, legislation, politics, and life and death issues such as capital punishment.