File photo of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and advisor Laurel Dawson at a press conference. (Photo from WEWS.)

New court filing gives new details about aide, husband


As Gov. Mike DeWine in 2019 nominated Sam Randazzo to be Ohio’s top utility regulator, Randazzo went to great lengths to hide a decade-long relationship with FirstEnergy that had paid him more than $10 million. Those payments included $4.3 million just as DeWine was picking Randazzo, according to court documents filed last week.

Yet DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney in February said it “was well known that Randazzo was a paid consultant for FirstEnergy.” On Tuesday, Tierney modified that statement to say “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.”

DeWine’s appointee to chair the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Randazzo went on to help write and lobby for a $1.3 billion bailout that Akron-based FirstEnergy paid more than $60 million in bribes to pass, according to a federal jury and the indictments of Randazzo and two former FirstEnergy executives.

The scandal broke into the open in July 2020, when the FBI arrested former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and four others. Householder and former Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges were convicted, two others pleaded guilty, and lobbyist Neil Clark died by suicide.

DeWine, who signed the bailout law, and his staff haven’t been accused of illegal activity in the case. But with the administration’s many connections to FirstEnergy, questions continue to linger about exactly what DeWine and his team knew about the conspiracy and what they did with that knowledge.

A big question relates to the period when the governor was picking Randazzo to be the state’s top utility regulator. Did DeWine or top members of his staff know that Randazzo had a long, lucrative relationship with FirstEnergy, one of the biggest utilities he’d be regulating?

A state indictment of Randazzo said that he had a shady relationship with FirstEnergy stretching back to 2010. It included hiding his work for FirstEnergy from industrial energy users Randazzo served as general counsel as he secretly skimmed from settlement payments FirstEnergy made to the industrial users, the indictment said.

Big money, big favors

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 Michael Dowling.

The executives would be indicted along with Randazzo in February 2024. At the dinner, the men discussed with DeWine and Husted whether to make Randazzo the chief regulator of the executives’ company, the indictment said.

The executives drove from the dinner to Randazzo’s German Village condo for another discussion. The same evening, Randazzo texted Dowling a column of figures ending with “Total 4,333,333.”

The indictment said that within weeks, the executives paid Randazzo that amount without an invoice and over a company lawyer’s objections. DeWine nominated him to chair the PUCO a few weeks after that.

Over the next 18 months, Randazzo labored to draft, pass, and protect the company’s massive bailout and did a number of additional, highly lucrative favors besides, the indictment said. It all ended with his resignation after the FBI searched his condo four months after Householder and the others were arrested.

But what DeWine and his staff knew about Randazzo’s relationship with FirstEnergy as they were considering whether to make him its regulator appears to be a matter of dispute.

“In January 2019, FirstEnergy agreed to pay out in full Randazzo’s consulting services contract just before he was nominated to run the PUCO,” a bill of particulars that was filed last week to accompany the indictment says. “It was not a gift: Randazzo would work hard for FirstEnergy from inside the government. He did not disclose his relationship, going so far as to lie about it in testimony to the General Assembly and failing to disclose to the Ohio Ethics Commission the massive sums of money he’d received from the company he would soon regulate.”

Who knew?

Randazzo’s indictment says Randazzo did, however, “tell 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.’” It added that Randazzo didn’t disclose the other millions he made as a FirstEnergy consultant or his work lobbying for the electricity giant.

Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary, on Tuesday said that Randazzo’s consulting work for FirstEnergy was well known — at least inside the administration.

“I note our office is not a party to the prosecution, so we cannot vouch for any claims made by the prosecution or defense in these cases,” he said in an email. “Speaking for the staff of the Governor’s office, 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 FirstEnergy.”

However, FirstEnergy’s top brass feared public knowledge of their relationship could scuttle his nomination. On Jan. 30, 2019, Dowling, the FirstEnergy vice president, sent a panicked text to CEO Jones. It said Randazzo was going to pull out of the PUCO nomination process because the press found the name of one of his shell companies on a bankruptcy filing by a subsidiary FirstEnergy was seeking to bail out.

When Randazzo’s nomination got back on track, the executives expressed relief.

“A bullet grazed the temple,” Dowling told Jones, according to one of the texts filed as part of a civil suit over the scandal.

“Forced DeWine/Husted to perform battlefield triage,” Jones responded, referring to Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. “It’s a rough game.”

So while administration insiders might have known about the Randazzo-FirstEnergy relationship, it clearly wasn’t common knowledge to the public who would have to pay the utility’s inflated bills. Tierney didn’t answer why, if DeWine knew that Randazzo was a FirstEnergy consultant, he didn’t disclose that to the public the PUCO is supposed to protect from monopoly utilities.

Inside connections

While Tierney said he couldn’t vouch for the information in the indictments or other court filings, he said it would have been extraordinary to ask Randazzo whether he had been paid money by Ohio utilities as the administration was vetting him for the position as their chief regulator.

“…it would have been unusual to review past employment compensation with the Governor as part of cabinet director vetting,” Tierney said.

As for the chief of staff who did the vetting — Laurel Dawson — she had a FirstEnergy connection of her own. Her husband, Mike Dawson, was a FirstEnergy lobbyist whom the indictment said had received a $10,000 loan from Randazzo a few years earlier.

It’s unclear whether the loan was repaid or whether Laurel Dawson reported it to DeWine. The DeWine aide isn’t speaking publicly.

It’s also unclear whether Laurel Dawson told the governor that her husband participated in an early 2020 text conversation with Randazzo and Dowling. The conversation was included in the bill of particulars filed last week.

The three jokingly discussed rate cases and decoupling — two matters for which prosecutors say Randazzo had by then received multi-million-dollar bribes from FirstEnergy in exchange for doing even more valuable favors for the company.

State prosecutors say that for Randazzo, engaging in the exchange amounted to an improper ex parte conversation. It might have been of interest to DeWine to know that his chief of staff’s lobbyist husband was having such talks with the governor’s PUCO chairman.

According to a witness list reported on Tuesday by the Toledo Blade, prosecutors plan to call both Dawsons to testify at the trial of Randazzo, Dowling and Jones.


Despite the questions surrounding what Laurel Dawson knew about Randazzo and FirstEnergy — and about what she told her boss — she remains on his staff as an advisor, making $182,000 last year.

“The Governor has previously stated on the record at media briefings he has full faith in Ms. Dawson,” Tierney said.

But what did he know?

The indictment of DeWine’s PUCO chairman and the energy executives has an image of notes that Dowling made in late 2018 as FirstEnergy lobbyist Josh Rubin coached him up on how to talk to Gov.-elect DeWine. They warn the FirstEnergy executives not to tell him that they planned to go meet Randazzo just after discussing his appointment at dinner with DeWine and Husted.

Rubin added that DeWine could be cagey.

“Sometimes he knows what you’re talking about,” Dowling wrote in his notes. “Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he does and pretends he doesn’t.”

Tierney was asked if DeWine now is feigning ignorance of the dealings between his administration, his nominee to head the PUCO and FirstEnergy. Tierney replied by saying that some of the players in the scandal have shown a tendency to make questionable statements.

“Throughout the (utility scandal) prosecutions, third parties have made claims which have been self-serving and ultimately not true,” he said. “I will note, however, the state prosecution alleges the defendants deliberately withheld relevant information from the Governor, Lt. Governor, and other government officials.”

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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