BY: JAKE ZUCKERMAN – Ohio Capital Journal

Both FirstEnergy Corp. and its shareholders argued to a federal judge that they shouldn’t be forced to publicly disclose which executives ordered the payment of political bribes that the company admitted to in a related criminal case.

The two parties are awaiting judicial approval of a proposed settlement from a derivative lawsuit filed by FirstEnergy’s shareholders. The settlement would call for FirstEnergy’s insurers to pay the company $180 million for damages incurred via the company’s role in what prosecutors have described as the largest public corruption manifestation in state history.

In an agreement with prosecutors reached in July 2021, FirstEnergy as a company admitted to a $60 million bribery scheme anchored by the then-Speaker of the Ohio House, and another $4.3 million bribe to Ohio’s then top utility regulator.

The statement of facts in that agreement, however, anonymizes the FirstEnergy officials involved in the scandal. The agreement also called for FirstEnergy to pay a $230 million penalty and cooperate with investigators to possibly avert a charge of wire fraud against the company.

Delaying any possible approval in the shareholder’s derivative case, U.S. District Judge John A. Adams asked the shareholders’ attorneys last week to state who at FirstEnergy ordered the bribe payments,

Jeroen van Kwawegen, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, demurred and didn’t answer the question, prompting Adams to cut short the hearing. Adams then issued an order calling for any “interested parties” to either provide an answer to his question or offer a good reason why they can’t divulge the information. He threatened the lawyers with contempt and possible expulsion from the case for failure to answer.

The shareholders, in arguments submitted Wednesday, offered to privately tell the judge who at FirstEnergy ordered the bribes. They said they couldn’t do so publicly because doing so would breach confidentiality rules associated with discovery (the pre-trial evidence exchanging process) and mediation.

The shareholders’ lawyers said their obligations are to their clients and to FirstEnergy itself — not the public.

“Such public disclosure could also be harmful to FirstEnergy considering the myriad related criminal and civil proceedings, the ongoing regulatory investigations, and the securities class action pending in the Southern District of Ohio where FirstEnergy is a defendant,” they wrote.

Kwawegen attached emails attached to the filing showing he asked lawyers FirstEnergy and its former executives if they’d agree to voluntarily disclose some of the information. He was rejected by the company, its former CEO Chuck Jones, Dennis Chack, and Mike Dowling (whose lawyer said they are not inclined to provide a “blanket waiver” but asked for specifics). Jones, Chack and Dowling were all fired in October 2020 amid an internal investigation.

FirstEnergy made similar arguments. The lawsuit and settlement, its lawyers said, are aimed to recover for harm done to the company because of its actions. Any public accountability, they argued, “risks harm to the interests of FirstEnergy and its stockholders, which is exactly the opposite of what a derivative litigation is supposed to do.”

Notably silent on the issue: federal prosecutors. They didn’t weigh in either way before the court. A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Kenneth Parker didn’t respond to an inquiry.

The derivative lawsuit traces back to the passage of House Bill 6 in 2019. The energy overhaul legislation, among other provisions, provided a massive bailout of two nuclear power plants owned at the time by a FirstEnergy subsidiary. Federal prosecutors said the legislation was worth $1.3 billion to the company.

To ensure it passed and thwart a referendum attempt to repeal it, FirstEnergy admitted to providing $60 million to a nonprofit secretly controlled by then House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford. Householder allegedly used the funds to elect a slate of candidates that would support his bid to become the House Speaker, engineer the bill’s passage, thwart a repeal effort, and enrich himself personally. He has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial, scheduled for January 2023.

FirstEnergy also admitted to secretly paying $4.3 million to energy attorney Sam Randazzo just before Gov. Mike DeWine named him chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Randazzo has not been accused of a crime and has denied wrongdoing.

JAKE ZUCKERMAN is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.

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