Former Public Utilities of Ohio Chair Sam Randazzo at court. (Photo by WEWS.)

BY:  Ohio Capital Journal

An Ohio grand jury has handed up a 44-count indictment against three players in what is likely the biggest bribery scandal in state history. And when the 50-page indictment was unveiled Monday, it provided new details about a decade of payoffs and conflicts as one of them — who became the state’s top regulator — allegedly did a huge electric utility’s bidding.

The indictment concerns a $1.3 billion dollar bailout that Akron-based FirstEnergy has already admitted to the federal government that it paid more than $60 million in bribes to purchase.

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and former state GOP Chairman Matt Borges are serving federal prison sentences for their roles in the 2019 passage of the bailout and the dirty-but-succesful fight to thwart a voter-led repeal.

When federal prosecutors in 2021 charged those two and three others, they said their investigation continued. But it wasn’t until December that they charged another in the case — Sam Randazzo, a lawyer and longtime energy consultant whom Gov. Mike DeWine nominated to chair the state’s top regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

That left the people who paid the alleged bribes — FirstEnergy’s top executives — uncharged in a scheme that took place more than four years ago.

Double dealing

All that changed Monday when Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced state charges against Randazzo and former First Energy CEO Chuck Jones and former Vice President Michael Dowling for their alleged roles in the criminal conspiracy. The three were arraigned in Akron on Tuesday and each pleaded not guilty.

They were charged in an indictment that alleged shady dealings between the them stretching back 13 years.

“It all began with a well-lawyered theft in 2010,” the indictment said.

It went on to describe how Randazzo was general counsel for a group of large FirstEnergy customers — the Industrial Energy Users of Ohio — while also working as a FirstEnergy consultant. Only, the Industrial Energy Users didn’t know that Randazzo was also being paid by the company they were paying him to fight, the indictment said.

It accuses Randazzo of settling the industries’ claims against FirstEnergy on terms acceptable to FirstEnergy and running the settlements through Randazzo-controlled shell companies where he took a skim — again, unknown to the industrial energy users.

“His clients, the industrial members of IEU-Ohio, did not know he was a consultant for FirstEnergy,” the indictment said. “Randazzo did not tell them. Years later, some of the money would make its way to IEU-Ohio. Some of it would end up in Randazzo’s pocket.”

The Industrial Energy Users appear to have engaged in some cynical conduct of their own, however. The indictment describes a 2015 agreement in which FirstEnergy was to pay Randazzo’s company $8.5 million for “consulting services.”

It was really a cash “side deal” in which FirstEnergy paid the industrial users to drop their objections to a rate hike FirstEnergy wanted, supposedly in the name of “energy security,” the indictment said. In other words, prosecutors said that with Randazzo’s facilitation, FirstEnergy paid off a wealthy, powerful group of electricity users in order to raise rates on everybody else.

Such arrangements proved quite profitable for Randazzo.

“Between 2016 and 2019, FirstEnergy paid… $13,152,639.94 to Randazzo’s two shell companies,” the indictment said. “Of that total, Randazzo gave $7,756.903.84 to his IEU-Ohio Client and kept $5,395,736.10 for himself.”

Cozy relationships

This is the guy the incoming DeWine-Husted administration thought would be a good candidate to regulate utilities — companies to which Ohioans have little choice in paying their billions.

The state indictment describes how, on Dec. 18, 2018, FirstEnergy execs Jones and Dowling met with Gov.-elect DeWine and Lt. Gov.-elect Jon Husted at the Columbus Athletic Club and discussed whether the executives wanted Randazzo to regulate their massive electric utility.

The notion that a governor would ask a huge utility who might be acceptable as a regulator might itself seem startling. But after the dinner, according to the indictment, Jones and Dowling did something even more brazen.

They went to Randazzo’s German Village condo and pursuant to that, Randazzo solicited a $4.3 million payment from Jones and Dowling, the indictment said. FirstEnergy paid the money “without ever having received an invoice for the payment and without any work or consulting services being performed,” the indictment said. It added that the executives made the payment over the objections of a company lawyer.

Randazzo told Laurel Dawson, DeWine’s chief of staff, about the payment, calling it a “consulting agreement.” But he didn’t tell her of the other millions he’d gotten from the utility he was seeking to regulate, the indictment said. Randazzo also never told the Ohio Ethics Commission about any of the money he’d gotten from FirstEnergy, the indictment said.

In Dawson, Randazzo might have had a sympathetic audience. Her husband, Michael Dawson, was a “paid FirstEnergy lobbyist” in 2016, when he’d gotten a $10,000 loan from Randazzo, the indictment said.

But if his chief of staff told DeWine about the huge payoff Randazzo got from FirstEnergy, it must not have fazed the new governor. DeWine nominated Randazzo to be chairman of the Public Utilities Commission — the ratepayers’ supposed protector — on Feb. 4, 2019.

Versatile player

During Householder’s six-week trial in Cincinnati last year, federal prosecutors put on exhaustive evidence of how the FirstEnergy executives financed Householder’s bid to become speaker and to pass the notorious bailout known as House Bill 6.

“Together, Jones, Dowling, Randazzo and his shell companies worked in concert to steal the power of government and bend it to the will of FirstEnergy,” was the way the state indictment unveiled on Monday put it.

Most of the details of Randazzo’s involvement in the creation and passage of HB 6 are already known from the federal trial. They show him acting in multiple, conflicting, often-undisclosed capacities — similar to those the state indictment alleges he had already played with FirstEnergy and the industrial energy users.

Even though he was supposed to be a regulator, Randazzo drafted portions of the bailout legislation and passed them between FirstEnergy officials and a Householder employee who had recently worked for the PUCO. They sometimes only shared printed copies of the huge bill, out of an apparent apprehension about leaving electronic fingerprints.

According to text messages between Jones and Dowling, Randazzo went so far as to actively lobby for passage of the bailout — which would seem a big departure from the traditional duties of a disinterested regulator.

Jones and Dowling discussed a meeting about HB 6 that Randazzo had with Sen. Steve Wilson, R-Maineville, and the Senate’s counsel. “We have a good plan to help,” Dowling told his boss.

Other officials

Despite the fact that DeWine had reason to know Randazzo was connected to FirstEnergy, the governor made him the state’s top utility regulator and he signed the billion-dollar bailout that benefitted the company the day it passed. And on July 21, 2021 — the day Householder was arrested — DeWine said he wasn’t in favor of repealing the measure.

The governor subsequently walked that back, but HB 6 is still on the books and Ohio utilities are still getting hundreds of millions in ratepayer subsidies as a result.

DeWine wasn’t the only state official to act at least peripherally in the scandal.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose has refused to explain the “private” updates that FirstEnergy CEO Jones said the state’s chief elections official was providing during an attempt to gather signatures to put an HB 6 repeal on the ballot.

And Yost himself dealt a mortal blow to the signature gathering when he initially rejected the ballot language — cutting nearly in half the time HB 6 opponents had to gather a quarter-million valid signatures. And in text messages presented in the federal trial, Borges told a co-conspirator that Yost thought HB 6 was a bad law, but wouldn’t speak up because of help he’d gotten from FirstEnergy in the past.

Beyond the bailout

Randazzo’s alleged help to FirstEnergy wasn’t limited to HB 6. He also thwarted a PUCO look into the company’s books that was likely to force a cut in electricity bills. That would have caused falling stock prices and a hit to Jones’ and Dowling’s portfolios, the indictment said.

The erstwhile regulator was apparently so helpful that Jones at one point told a FirstEnergy subordinate to back off for fear of being too obvious. In a text message included in the indictment, Jones told Dennis Chack that Randazzo’s pro-FirstEnergy conduct “has a lot of talk going on in the halls of PUCO about does he work there or for us?”

Even so, Randazzo’s behavior at the PUCO continued to be shameless, urging fellow regulators to join him in lobbying for the corrupt bailout, the indictment said.

Randazzo “began internally lobbying PUCO staff members between July 2020 and September 2020 to generate strategies to save HB 6, despite facing internal objections about the inappropriateness of the effort to save HB 6,” it said.

The indictment included a Sept. 15, 2020 email in which Randazzo told subordinates, “One option (and I really think we need to get other commissioners and staff into a proactive mode): We could, on our own initiative, issue a show-cause order to (FirstEnergy) directing (FirstEnergy) to show that no costs associated with HB 6 have been included in any riders or base rates.”

Had such an order been issued, the result would have been misleading. While the bill didn’t raise consumer costs through riders or base rates, it included a provision that ensured FirstEnergy would collect at least as much as it did in one of its best years and it created a massive subsidy for money-losing coal plants.

Randazzo’s efforts seemed finally to end two months later, when the FBI searched his condo.

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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