In October 2019, as a battle raged over an attempt to repeal a $1.3 billion utility bailout, a FirstEnergy executive worked to keep the name of a senior aide to Gov. Mike DeWine off of a $10 million infusion of corporate cash into the fight.
The executive, Vice President Michael Dowling, did so even after an assistant told him it would violate IRS rules to not list the DeWine aide on the transaction, according to text messages presented Tuesday in the federal corruption trial of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and lobbyist Matthew Borges. The men are accused of racketeering in a scheme to use $61 million from FirstEnergy in exchange for the massive bailout, most of which went to prop up the company’s failing nuclear and coal plants in order to make them attractive to buyers.
DeWine has denied involvement in the arrangement even though he met with FirstEnergy executives and visited one of its nuclear plants in 2018 as he was seeking the governorship and FirstEnergy was lavishly funding Householder’s effort to elect sympathetic Republicans who would then vote to make him speaker. For his part, DeWine received $23,000 from the Akron-based utility for his campaign and his inaugural celebration, according to Ohio Citizen Action. He vowed to donate the money to charity following revelations of the scandal.
The governor appointed as chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Ohio a former FirstEnergy consultant who was paid $4.3 million by the utility just before taking his seat on the commission. Even though he was supposed to be regulating the utility, the official, Sam Randazzo, played a role in writing the bailout legislation, according to documents released by the Ohio House.
In early 2019, DeWine also appointed FirstEnergy lobbyist Dan McCarthy to be his legislative affairs director, meaning McCarthy was in charge of representing DeWine’s interests before the General Assembly.
In early 2017, while McCarthy was still working for FirstEnergy, Householder and his son, along with FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and others, flew corporate jets to Washington, D.C. for fancy dinners and Donald Trump’s inaugural.
Just after that, McCarthy formed a 501(c)(4) group called Partners for Progress. Also known as a “dark money” group, it received $5 million from FirstEnergy within a few weeks of when McCarthy founded it.
In an affidavit supporting Householder’s arrest, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel said Partners for Progress was “designed to conceal the nature, source, ownership, and control of the payments” from FirstEnergy and associated companies. Through the rest of 2018, McCarthy continued as president of Partners for Progress as it pumped FirstEnergy money into a Householder-controlled dark money group and funded the effort to make Householder speaker.
The following year, McCarthy resigned that role to work for DeWine in the legislature as Householder shepherded the bailout legislation, House Bill 6. When a final version passed in July 2019, DeWine signed it the same day.
But opponents quickly started a campaign to circulate petitions to put a repeal on the ballot. That prompted FirstEnergy to pump even greater sums into a “decline to sign” campaign aimed at thwarting the petitions.
It funded xenophobic mailers and broadcast ads claiming without evidence that the repeal effort was a Chinese plot.
“Who is knocking at your door?” began a mailer read in court Tuesday. “Foreign enemies have infiltrated our energy grid,” it added and said, ominously, that circulators of repeal petitions “are asking for your information.”
In October 2019, executives with FirstEnergy and its generation-owning subsidiary seemed panicked that the repeal effort might succeed and they were planning to pump $10 million more into the effort to stop it — through Partners for Progress, the dark money group started by McCarthy, who was now a DeWine aide.
Dowling, the FirstEnergy vice president, seemed to think it wouldn’t be a good look for the name of a DeWine official to show up on paperwork accompanying the huge transaction.
“Please make sure Dan McCarthy’s name is not on the filing,” Dowling said in a text message to Partners for Progress Treasurer Michael Vanburen that was presented in court Tuesday.
Vanburen replied that even though McCarthy was no longer president of the dark money group, IRS rules required that his name be on the filing. Dowling didn’t accept that.
“There must be a creative way to handle this,” he said. “It’s important that (McCarthy’s) name not be listed.”
Asked if DeWine asked that McCarthy’s name not be used in paperwork regarding the money transfers, Press Secretary Dan Tierney in an email said, “No. Dan McCarthy resigned from Partners for Progress in December 2018. Dowling’s comments, as you have relayed them to me, do not match the timeline of McCarthy’s affiliation with Partners for Progress.”
DeWine seems to have been in touch with FirstEnergy executives around the time of the repeal effort. Later in October 2019, FirstEnergy CEO Jones texted Vice President Dowling to say, “DeWine’s on board. I talked to him on Wednesday.”
According to Jones, they talked about whether the repeal HB 6 effort would gather enough valid signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
“He said their valid rate was less than 30%,” Jones said of DeWine.
For his part, Tierney said, “The Governor does not have any recollection of such a conversation.”
In a later text conversation, Jones said he’d received similar assurances from Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
After arrests were made in the House Bill 6 scandal, DeWine staunchly defended McCarthy and kept him in his administration for more than a year, until Sept. 24, 2021.
“As far as I know, Dan McCarthy has been well-respected for many, many years, long before he started working for me as our legislative director and I have faith in his integrity,” DeWine said in early 2021 as questions about the role McCarthy’s dark money group played in the bribery and money laundering scandal continued.
In another trial-related matter, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black on Tuesday said that he had released a second juror, this time for testing positive for COVID. An earlier juror had been released for refusing to wear a mask.
That brings the number of alternate jurors to two for a trial that is expected to last into early March.
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.
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