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Moreno blasted rivals over scandal. Now he’s welcoming a big player’s support

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Moreno blasted rivals over scandal. Now he’s welcoming a big player’s support

Jun 13, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Marty Schladen
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Moreno blasted rivals over scandal. Now he’s welcoming a big player’s support
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(From left) Sec. of State Frank LaRose, Bernie Moreno, and state Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, on the debate stage before the March primary. (Debate pool photo courtesy of WCMH-TV.)

Correction: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, donated $21,000 he received from Akron-based FirstEnergy to charity 10 days after arrests were made in 2020 in a bribery scandal in which FirstEnergy was involved. The original version of this story listed a larger, incorrect amount.

During the GOP U.S. Senate primary, Cleveland businessman Bernie Moreno went after his opponents over their connections to the biggest bribery and money-laundering scandal in Ohio history

But now he’s welcoming the support of a man who brokered what was perhaps the key relationship in a scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy paid $61 million to purchase a $1.3 billion bailout that fell on the backs of ratepayers — which is to say everyday Ohioans. 

The supporter, Cleveland businessman Tony George, invited a now-convicted lawmaker to travel on FirstEnergy’s private jet to Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural, and booked the lawmaker and FirstEnergy executives into the same hotel for days of events during which federal prosecutors say the conspiracy began. George was still communicating with the central players in 2020, when the FBI started making arrests.

When asked to comment on the seeming hypocrisy, Moreno’s campaign didn’t respond directly. It instead attacked his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Crooked bailout

A political newcomer, Moreno in March sailed past his more-experienced opponents buoyed by the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

Moreno was once a harsh Trump critic, calling him a “lunatic” and a “maniac.” But as with Ohio Sen. — and vice-presidential hopeful — J.D. Vance, Moreno got into politics and turned into an ardent supporter of Trump, who is now a convicted felon.

Moreno might have experienced a similar conversion when it comes to 2019’s corrupt bailout law, House Bill 6. 

In a Spectrum News 1 debate on Feb. 19, Moreno went after his Republican opponents, State Sen. Matt Dolan and Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Dolan in 2019 voted for HB 6, but then later said he supported a full repeal.

LaRose, Ohio’s top elections official, provided “private” information to FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones during a brutal-but-successful war to stop a repeal of the bailout, according to text messages from Jones that were presented during a criminal trial last year. LaRose at first refused to comment on the messages. Then last July, he said he didn’t recall conversations with Jones and others involved in the scandal.

As a result of the bailout conspiracy, former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, last year received a 20-year prison sentence and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges was sentenced to five years. Jones and former FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling were charged by state authorities earlier this year.

About 19-and-a-half minutes into February’s GOP Senate debate, LaRose attacked Moreno over what LaRose said was Moreno’s support for government subsidies of wind and solar energy. Moreno swung back with HB 6, the corrupt bailout law.

“I was against HB 6,” Moreno said. “These guys weren’t. They’re going to have to answer for their involvement in that scandal to a different audience than the one that’s here tonight.”

Moreno took another swing at Dolan on April 30, when he took to X to say.

@dolan4ohio was the most helpful member to pass the CROOKED and CORRUPT FirstEnergy Bailout Bill! Matt is a GUARDIAN for the Left Woke Mob and the Swamp but not the people of Ohio,” he said.

Support from “Individual B”

That last sentence was an apparent swipe at the Dolan family’s ownership of Cleveland’s baseball team. In 2021 it changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians in response to Native American protests — to the fury of some of its fans.

But as for Moreno’s problems with figures who were involved in the bailout scandal, they appear to extend only to his political opponents — not his supporters.

On May 16, his campaign held a Bourbon With Bernie fundraiser in Mentor. Cleveland businessman Tony George was a host, a privilege for which George paid $2,500.

In addition to being a Moreno supporter, George has had a long and lucrative relationship with FirstEnergy. Entities linked to George received nearly $11 million from FirstEnergy over the years, according to a state audit. 

Unlike FirstEnergy’s two top executives, Gov. Mike DeWine’s nominee to the Public Utilities Commission, Householder, Borges and three others, George has not been charged in the conspiracy, and there’s been no public indication that state or federal authorities plan to.

But George’s role was substantial enough that he was called “Individual B” in FirstEnergy’s deferred prosecution agreement — a document in which the utility copped to its culpability for the bribery scandal, along with paying out $230 million. It lays out Individual B’s close relationship with FirstEnergy’s top executive and to Householder from the fall of 2016, when Householder was plotting his return to the House and then to regain the speaker’s gavel.

During his trial, Householder implausibly testified that during the 2016 World Series, he randomly wandered into the FirstEnergy luxury box at Cleveland’s Progressive Field. Raising doubts that his visit was just happenstance, the deferred prosecution agreement includes a message from Jones, the FirstEnergy CEO, to George on Nov. 5, 2016 — just three days after Game 7 of the World Series.

“Pass on to (Householder),” Jones said. “When we were talking on (Wednesday) I told him there was gonna be a sense of urgency (for a bailout) but couldn’t tell him all the details. If we don’t move on some type of supplant (sic) in (the) first half of 2017 it will be too late. These (nuclear) plants will be shut, sold, or bankrupt. I don’t have any contact info for him.” 

George responded, “He’s more than ready to craft something,” federal prosecutors said in closing arguments in Householder’s trial.

Expensive junket

The following January, George invited Householder — and flew with him, Householder’s son and FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling — on the FirstEnergy jet to the Trump inaugural. George also booked Householder and then-CEO Jones into the same DC hotel.

What followed were days of swanky steak dinners and other events during which prosecutors said the bailout scheme was hatched.

FirstEnergy’s deferred prosecution agreement, or DPA, says that George continued as a conduit between Householder and Jones until 2020, when Householder was arrested. 

Before the feds brought the hammer down, Jones, George and Householder were plotting to change the Ohio Constitution so Householder could continue as speaker for another 16 years. That would have allowed them to continue to increase electricity rates and use the resulting dark money to dominate Ohio government in ways not calculated to benefit ratepayers, or the public at large.

The DPA includes messages between Jones and George on Feb. 28, 2020. Jones referred to Householder as “an expensive friend,” but said it would be valuable to keep him in his position of power because, as Householder said, he could “get a lot done in 16 years.”

George agreed, saying, “Probably more than 5 previous Speakers combined.”

Then, George added, “He will make Ohio great again.”

Response

The Moreno campaign this week declined to answer questions about these matters on the record. 

It was asked whether Moreno was aware of George’s involvement in the HB 6 affair when Moreno accepted George’s support. It was also asked if Moreno would return George’s money and decline support in the future.

Communications Director Reagan McCarthy responded by asking in an email, “When is Sherrod Brown going to return the donations made to his campaign over the years including when FirstEnergy admitted it was bribing public officials?”

In fact, Brown donated the $21,000 he’d received from FirstEnergy over the years to Ohio food banks within 10 days of Householder’s 2020 arrest, according to Federal Election Commission records provided by the Brown campaign.

“While Bernie continues to actively fundraise with key players of the FirstEnergy bribery scandal, days after the FirstEnergy scandal was revealed, the Friends of Sherrod Brown campaign donated FirstEnergy contributions to local food banks across the state,” a spokesperson said in an email.