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Ex-First Energy executives, Ohio utility regulator charged by state in bailout and bribery scandal

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Ex-First Energy executives, Ohio utility regulator charged by state in bailout and bribery scandal

Feb 12, 2024 | 4:34 pm ET
By Marty Schladen Morgan Trau
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Ex-First Energy executives, Ohio utility regulator charged by state in bailout and bribery scandal
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From left to right: Former PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo, former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones, former FirstEnergy VP Michael Dowling. (Mugshots from the Summit County Sheriff's Office. Graphic by WEWS.)

Ohio law enforcement authorities on Monday filed numerous felony charges against two former First Energy executives and a former top utility regulator in what has been called the biggest bribery and money-laundering scandal in Ohio history.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced scores of felony charges against a former regulator who also has been charged federally, and against two people who haven’t — former top executives for Akron-based FirstEnergy whom the company admitted paid more than $60 million in bribes between 2016 and 2020 in exchange for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout.

Charged were Sam Randazzo, former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission. Already facing felony charges in federal court, the state indictment charges him with 22 more, including grand theft, bribery, and money laundering. The indictment accuses him of taking bribes from FirstEnergy from 2010 until just before he became chairman of the commission in 2019.

Also charged were former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and Vice President Michael Dowling. Between them, they face 22 felony charges similar to those faced by Randazzo.

“This indictment is about more than one piece of legislation,” Yost said Monday. “It is about the hostile capture of a significant portion of Ohio’s state government by deception, betrayal, and dishonesty.”

The state charges that were announced Monday didn’t deal with much of the activity addressed in the federal case. They instead focused on the relationship between Jones, Dowling, and Randazzo between 2010 and early 2019, when they paid him $4.33 million just as he was becoming the state’s top utility regulator.

The House Bill 6 scandal

Back in 2019, former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder took $61 million in bribes in exchange for legislation to give FirstEnergy a $1 billion bailout, named House Bill 6, all at the expense of the ratepayers.

The scheme was revealed in three main ways — two separate whistleblowers and a phone wiretap.

In March 2023, a jury found Householder and former Ohio Republican Party leader Matt Borges guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for their involvement in the racketeering scheme that left four men guilty and another dead by suicide.

In late June that year, federal judge Timothy Black sentenced Householder to 20 years in prison. Borges got 5 years. The two surviving defendants took plea agreements early on, helping the FBI, and are still awaiting their sentencing. The feds are asking for 0-6 months for them.

Until Monday, only federal indictments had been handed out.

HB 6 mainly benefited FirstEnergy’s struggling nuclear power plants, but those provisions were later repealed. There are aspects of the bill still in place, though.

The Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC) got a handout from the scheme. It expanded a bailout of the OVEC plants and required Ohioans to pay for two 1950s-era coal plants— one in the Southern area of the state and the other in Indiana. The main beneficiaries of this are American Electric Power Company (AEP), Duke Energy and AES Ohio.

Despite this scandal becoming public years ago, ethics laws in the state have not changed to prevent schemes like this from happening.

There are numerous bipartisan efforts to repeal HB 6 totally and to put forward ethics laws. None are going anywhere, it seems.

Monday’s indictments

AG Yost was joined by Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh and Sheriff Kandy Fatheree for the announcement Monday.

“The crimes committed by these individuals impacted the pocketbooks of every hard working Ohioan and further shook our faith in the institutions and organizations that we count on to represent us and to provide us with essential services,” Fatheree said. “Today, we take another important step in ensuring that justice is served for these crimes and that those who took advantage of the public’s trust are held accountable.”

FirstEnergy as a company has already admitted in a deferred prosecution agreement to bribing public officials in Ohio, including a $4.3 million bribe to Randazzo. Jones and Dowling allegedly paid this to him.

Randazzo pleaded not guilty to the federal charges against him in December.

The Sustainability Funding Alliance of Ohio and IEU-Ohio Administration Company are also named in the filing. Randazzo controlled each of them, and they were allegedly shell companies created to further his criminal activity.

Reactions

While Monday was probably not the best day for Randazzo, Jones and Dowling, it was a great day for whistleblower Tyler Fehrman.

Fehrman is the Republican operative-turned-FBI informant who is credited with exposing this mass public corruption at the Statehouse — and he is cheering the AG and Summit County for these arrests.

“These guys deserve to have everything taken away from them,” Fehrman said. “They deserve it.”

Borges attempted to bribe Fehrman, and threatened him, to be a part of the scandal — even at one point telling him that if he snitches, Borges would “blow up his house.”

That conversation was actually set up and recorded by the feds. Instead of staying quiet, Fehrman testified, helping the jury to return guilty verdicts in the federal trial.

Fehrman ended up having to change careers and flee the state due to fears of retaliation — and because he was ostracized — but now he gets to watch as the scheme continues to unravel.

“You can hide your actions in the dark for a little bit,” Fehrman said Monday. “But the sun always rises and the truth always comes out. Every time one of these guys gets indicted, especially the people that made it possible for Matt and Larry to have the opportunity to do what they did to me — to see them get in trouble, it’s extremely vindicating.”

He agreed with Yost’s statement that there can be no justice without holding the check-writers and the masterminds accountable.

Case Western Reserve University law professor Mike Benza believes these charges are going to be hard to fight. When asked the best possible scenario for them, other than pleading guilty, he said their best bet could be to argue this is politics as usual.

“It seems that the focus from the defense side is going to be much like the focus from Householder and Borges — this is just how things get done in Columbus,” Benza said. “This is just the normal sausage-making of public policy and it may not be pretty and you may not like it, but this is the reality and it doesn’t equal corruption.”

Clearly, that wasn’t a winning argument in federal court.

Part of the reason why it may have worked so poorly in Black’s federal courtroom is because Householder went against the advice of the vast majority of criminal defense attorneys and decided to testify in his defense.

The now-convicted felon used the bribe money to put himself and his allies into power, demolishing and threatening anyone in his path, as well as paying off credit card debt and renovations to his home in Florida.

Benza believes Randazzo, Jones, and Dowling are facing difficult days ahead.

“Randazzo is probably going to be looking at dying in prison,” Benza responded. “Jones and Dowling are probably in that same boat.”

Ferhman is hoping for more indictments, including high-profile names.

“The clock is ticking for the other people that were involved,” Fehrman said.

He named Gov. Mike DeWine Lt. Gov. Jon Husted as people of interest for him.

DeWine has been complying with a subpoena he received in a civil case connected to the scandal, he said.

FirstEnergy investors are suing for being negatively impacted financially by the scandal. They have subpoenaed documents from DeWine, and they’re scheduling a sworn deposition with Husted.

In a one-on-one interview with the governor, DeWine was asked if he was nervous about the scandal, or, more importantly — if was he worried for Husted. DeWine said no to both.

Randazzo has been named as the mastermind behind HB 6, due to him being one of the creators of it — according to the feds. But DeWine was how he came into power.

DeWine was asked in the same interview if he regretted naming Randazzo the state’s top utility regulator.

“Oh, look, if I knew what I know now, if I knew that — I certainly would not have appointed Sam Randazzo to that position,” DeWine responded.

DeWine said he was the best person for the job, claiming that he wasn’t aware that Randazzo was FirstEnergy’s handpicked man.

“While our office was not privy to the indictment and have not yet reviewed it, the indictment alleges very serious acts,” DeWine’s spokesperson Dan Tierney said Monday afternoon. “Our office has full faith in the criminal justice system to adjudicate these serious allegations in an appropriate manner.”