COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Republican Gubernatorial-elect Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) and Lieutenant Gubernatorial-elect Jon Husted take the stage during their victory party for Ohio's gubernatorial race at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party at the Sheraton Capitol Square on November 6, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. DeWine defeated Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Richard Cordray to win the Ohio governorship. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

The office of Gov. Mike DeWine has for months been saying that connections between the guy he picked to be the state’s top regulator and a utility at the center of an epic bribery scandal were well known around Capitol Square when DeWine nominated him in January 2019.

If the relationship were common knowledge, it might seem more innocent that some in DeWine’s administration knew the utility had paid the regulator $4.3 million just before the governor nominated him. However, the administration has provided scant evidence that the claim is true — and there’s considerable evidence suggesting it isn’t.

The regulator, Sam Randazzo, died by suicide earlier this month and the utility, Akron-based FirstEnergy, has admitted to its role in a scandal that has sent one public official to prison for 20 years and seen yet another defendant die by suicide.

Meanwhile, DeWine’s lieutenant governor, Jon Husted, won’t talk about a $1 million FirstEnergy contribution to a group supporting him. And DeWine himself hasn’t explained what senior people in his administration with FirstEnergy connections knew about the scheme — in which $61 million in bribes were paid for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout.

Multiple ties

Among them is Laurel Dawson, who was chief of staff of the incoming DeWine administration at the beginning of 2019. At the same time, her husband, Mike Dawson, was a lobbyist for FirstEnergy.

A few weeks before, on Dec. 18, 2018, Gov.-elect DeWine and Lt. Gov.-elect Jon Husted had dinner at the Columbus Athletic Club with FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and Vice President Micheal Dowling. At the dinner, they discussed whether Randazzo would be acceptable to head up the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio — the agency that was supposed to regulate the executives’ utility, according to a state indictment of Randazzo, Jones, and Dowling that was filed in February.

After the dinner, the FirstEnergy executives drove about a mile to Randazzo’s condo and negotiated a $4.3 million payment to Randazzo, the indictment said. FirstEnergy later said the payment was a bribe in a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

As PUCO chairman, Randazzo helped draft and lobby for the bailout law and did several other lucrative favors for FirstEnergy. His indictment said it capped off a decade-long relationship in which he was a paid “consultant” for FirstEnergy unbeknownst to his law firm or a group of industrial energy users on whose behalf Randazzo was supposed to be negotiating concessions.

The indictment says at least one person in the DeWine administration — Laurel Dawson — knew that Randazzo had gotten a huge payment from FirstEnergy in the weeks before DeWine nominated him to chair the PUCO at the beginning of February 2019.

Randazzo told “the Governor-elect through his incoming Chief of Staff that he had received $4.3 million from FirstEnergy, which he claimed was final payment of a ‘consulting agreement,’” Randazzo’s indictment said.

For her part, Laurel Dawson is cooperating with the state prosecution, but she isn’t commenting publicly.

Common knowledge?

In the months since the state indictment of Randazzo and the FirstEnergy executives, DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney has been saying that Randazzo’s ties to FirstEnergy weren’t news even at the time the governor was considering him in early 2019 to head the PUCO.

In February, he told Cleveland’s News Channel 5, “it was well known that Randazzo was a paid consultant for FirstEnergy.”

Tierney modified that somewhat, telling the Capital Journal earlier this month, “it was well known to our staff that Mr. Randazzo was an energy consultant, and it was well-known to them and many people that Mr. Randazzo was a consultant employed by First Energy.”

However, it appears that Randazzo and FirstEnergy’s top leadership went to great lengths to keep their relationship secret.

Many of the counts Randazzo was charged with have to do with his failure to report income from FirstEnergy on state ethics disclosures while he was PUCO chairman. A bill of particulars accompanying the indictment adds that Randazzo didn’t disclose a 2015 consulting agreement with FirstEnergy to the members of his own law firm, McNees, Wallace and Nurick. Randazzo’s membership agreement in the firm barred barred him from outside employment, the filing said.

Pressed on the matter this week, Tierney said in an email, “Mr. Randazzo testified numerous times at the General Assembly prior to his appointment to the PUCO. In addition, Mr. Randazzo served on the PUCO Nominating Council, which requires ethics disclosures. These were among the reasons Mr. Randazzo’s relationships with utilities and FirstEnergy were well known at the Statehouse and on Capitol Square.”

The Capital Journal obtained Randazzo’s disclosures from the Ohio Ethics Commission for the period he served on the PUCO Nominating Council — 2007 to 2017. “FirstEnergy” doesn’t appear on any of them.

Tierney was informed of that and asked whether DeWine’s office could point to any testimony Randazzo gave to the General Assembly in which he divulged his long, profitable relationship with FirstEnergy. Tierney didn’t answer that question, saying instead, “My understanding is that Mr. Randazzo’s business entities are listed on the ethics form(s), and those business entities not only were well known to be associated with Mr. Randazzo on Capitol Square, but also well known to have First Energy as clients.”

Shell game

The entity that appears on Randazzo’s ethics disclosures is the Sustainability Funding Alliance of Ohio — a group prosecutors accused Randazzo of using as a shell corporation to skim millions in FirstEnergy money earmarked for his industrial clients. The group’s relationship with FirstEnergy was so secret that the corporation’s top executives feared that a partial disclosure would tank Randazzo’s nomination to the PUCO.

FirstEnergy Solutions — a subsidiary Jones and Dowling desperately wanted ratepayers to bail out — was going through bankruptcy. One of its filings mentioned the Sustainability Funding Alliance, which Randazzo had also listed on his ethics disclosures.

The FirstEnergy executives were in a panic about it and their communications show that the connection between their company and Randazzo’s entity was far from well known.

The DeWine administration is “going to be mad at Sam (and hopefully not us) for not disclosing the financial relationship,” Dowling texted Jones on Jan. 30, 2019, less than a week before DeWine nominated Randazzo. “That’s Sam’s responsibility.”

When the nomination went through anyway, Dowling told Jones, “A bullet grazed temple,” to which the FirstEnergy CEO replied, “Forced DeWine/Husted to perform battlefield triage.”

“Secret for-profit entity”

In his email Monday, Tierney also said, “What media has described as the ‘dossier’ regarding Randazzo’s relationship with First Energy, which is a collection of public domain documents from the time in 2019, shows that much of this was colloquially known on Capitol Square and within the energy advocacy community.”

The “dossier” Tierney referred to was a 198-page document from a former aide warning DeWine about Randazzo’s murky relationships. It was delivered to Laurel Dawson on Jan. 28, 2019 — about a week before her boss nominated Randazzo.

Tierney said the document shows that Randazzo’s ties to FirstEnergy were well known. But the first page of the dossier says something quite different.

“Publicly available documents suggest that PUCO applicant Sam Randazzo has opaque, undisclosed financial ties to FirstEnergy that should be fully examined and made public,” it says. “The enclosed evidence demonstrates that Randazzo personally profits from a secret for-profit entity funded by FirstEnergy Solutions.”

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, said that it’s past time for DeWine, Husted and their staffs to be much more forthcoming about their involvement in the bailout and about what DeWine and Husted did to investigate whether any member of the administration acted improperly.

“It makes sense to be as clear as possible about what actually happened,” she said. “And I don’t just want to hear from the governor. I want to hear from the lieutenant governor.”

Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.


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