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BY: Ohio Capital Journal

After two former Republican officials in June were sentenced for their roles in a massive racketeering conspiracy, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker said the investigation was continuing. At least two signs emerged last week that the proceedings might be intensifying.

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison on June 29 and former state GOP Chairman Matt Borges was sentenced to five years a day later. Both played roles in a scandal in which Akron-based FirstEnergy and other utilities paid more than $61 million to pass a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout that was mostly intended for a subsidiary that FirstEnergy was spinning off that owned two Northern Ohio nuclear plants.

In addition to Householder and Borges, two others who were arrested in July 2020 have pleaded guilty and a third died by suicide.

But on March 10, just after a jury convicted Householder and Borges, a reporter asked Parker an obvious question: What about the people who paid the bribes? Would they be charged? Parker would only say that the investigation was continuing.

Attorneys for the men who were FirstEnergy’s top executives at the time of the conspiracy — former CEO Chuck Jones and former Vice President Michael Dowling — have already said in court filings that they believe federal investigators are looking at their clients.

This month brought two more pieces of evidence that federal investigators are considering further prosecutions in the bribery and money laundering scandal.

On Aug. 4, Hilary M. Williams, who is representing FirstEnergy, submitted a filing in a massive class-action case against the company over the bailout scandal. She informed the scores of lawyers for the pension and investment funds suing the company that they’re not the only ones who want to see the emails and text messages the FirstEnergy executives sent as the bribery scheme was taking place.

“Counsel… we confirmed this morning that we may disclose to the parties that certain governmental authorities have requested the production of the entire contents of iPad and iPhone devices used by Mr. Jones or Mr. Dowling from January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2020,” Williams wrote. “In keeping with the protocol in this matter, those documents will be produced to all parties, and we expect to do so at approximately the same time that production is made to the requesting governmental authorities.”

She added. “Mr. Dowling and Mr. Jones used more than a dozen devices during the relevant time period, and processing and reviewing the contents of those devices requires substantial processing time and then time to review for confidentiality and privilege. We are working to complete the review as quickly as possible, and expect to make these productions on or about September 15, 2023.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office didn’t comment on whether the “governmental authorities” Williams referred to worked for Parker, whose office prosecuted Householder and Borges.

However, Parker last week sent a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Ohio asking the regulator to further postpone its investigation into the racketeering scandal.

“The PUCO proceedings involve issues related to the U.S. Department of Justice of the United States’ investigation, and the United States believes that continued discovery in the PUCO proceedings may directly interfere with or impede the United States’ ongoing investigation,” the letter said. “For that reason, the United States respectfully requests that PUCO stay the PUCO proceedings for a period of six months from the date of this letter. The United States reserves the right to request that the stay be extended beyond this time.”

Among those the feds may be investigating are Jones, Dowling and Sam Randazzo, whom Gov. Mike DeWine nominated to chair the PUCO in early 2019.

In a deferred prosecution agreement, FirstEnergy said it paid Randazzo a $4.3 million bribe just before his nomination in exchange for favors the ostensible regulator did for the company. Randazzo denies wrongdoing, but in the Householder trial, witnesses testified that Randazzo played a key role in drafting the corrupt bailout legislation.

Plaintiffs in the class-action suit earlier this month filed texts and emails between Jones, Dowling and Randazzo. They indicate that the three met in Randazzo’s Columbus condo in December 2018 and arranged to pay the soon-to-be regulator $4.3 million and made it clear that they expected something in return. They also appear to indicate that in addition to his work on the the bailout, Randazzo helped exempt FirstEnergy from a 2024 rate review it had been required to undergo.

The class-action plaintiffs are accusing FirstEnergy of violating securities law by concealing its illegal conduct from investors. Last week, they filed a transcript of an earnings call from July 23, 2020 — days after Householder, Borges and three others were arrested in the racketeering conspiracy. In it, Jones appeared to mislead analysts about his and his company’s role in it.

“I believe that FirstEnergy acted properly in this matter, and we intend to cooperate fully with the investigation to, among other things, ensure our company and our role in supporting House Bill 6 is understood as accurately as possible,” said Jones, who would be fired months later. “In the meantime, we wanted to share our preliminary perspective on this issue and reinforce the values with which we operate our company.”

Jones also claimed that he and his subordinates followed “the highest standards of conduct.”

“This is a serious and disturbing situation,” he said. “Ethical behavior and upholding the highest standards of conduct are foundational values for the entire FirstEnergy family and me personally. These high standards have fostered the trust of our employees, our customers and the financial community. We strive to apply these standards in all business dealings including our participation in the political process.”

Jones sat for a sworn deposition in the class-action case in July. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Jolson ordered Dowling to sit for one in October.

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.


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