April 10, 2024; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Lt. Governor Jon Husted gives a thumbs up in the Ohio House chambers before Governor Mike DeWine gave his 2024 State of the State address at the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday afternoon.

Donation came from utility behind massive bribery scandal

BY:  – Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted is refusing to say whether he was aware of a $1 million contribution in 2017 to a political group that was supporting his bid for governor. Instead, his office is only reiterating that the group wasn’t affiliated with the Husted campaign.

The massive donation came from Akron-based FirstEnergy, which over the next two years ponied up more than $60 million in bribes in exchange for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout — a law that Gov. Mike DeWine signed just hours after it passed.

The donation was discovered among a trove of documents that a group of news organizations including the Capital Journal requested from the Office of Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

As reported last week by the Energy News Network and Floodlight, the documents also contained emails indicating that Husted was lobbying DeWine to support the bailout. The lobbying came just 11 days after Husted abandoned his gubernatorial bid and joined DeWine’s ticket on Dec. 1, 2017.

“Jon Husted called me to say he was meeting with DeWine on our issue to try and get him aligned to help keep the plants open,” a Dec. 12, 2017 email by FirstEnergy lobbyist Joel Bailey said.

The plants were money-losing nuclear and coal plants that FirstEnergy wanted to prop up with the bailout and then spin off.

FirstEnergy in 2021 signed a deferred prosecution agreement in which it admitted to paying bribes to elect a friendly Republican majority to the state House, which would elect a friendly speaker who would pass and protect the corrupt bailout.

The company also admitted to paying a $4.3 million bribe to Sam Randazzo, DeWine’s pick to chair the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, who died by suicide last week. A state indictment said that FirstEnergy executives arranged the bribe with Randazzo the same night they discussed his suitability as a regulator at a dinner meeting with Gov.-elect DeWine and Lt. Gov.-elect Husted on Dec. 18, 2018.

The ensuing scandal has landed former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, in federal prison for 20 years, and former Ohio GOP Chair Matt Borges for five. Two others have pleaded guilty and await sentencing. Another defendant, lobbyist Neil Clark, also died by suicide — clad in a “DeWine for Governor” T-shirt.

DeWine and Husted haven’t been charged in case, and they adamantly deny wrongdoing.

However, they haven’t publicly discussed just what they knew about Randazzo’s long-standing relationship with FirstEnergy, or what they knew about the torrent of dark money flooding from FirstEnergy into Capitol Square to pass and protect the bailout. They also haven’t discussed what senior administration officials with close ties to FirstEnergy might have known.

Among the documents turned over once FirstEnergy made its agreement with federal prosecutors was a spreadsheet listing 501(c)(4) political contributions the company made in 2017.

Such donations are called “dark money” because recipients don’t have to disclose their sources. By law, dark-money contributions can’t go directly to candidates, but they can go to groups that support them, but aren’t supposed to directly coordinate with them.

The FirstEnergy spreadsheet is only now becoming public because the FBI investigated the scandal and the U.S. Department of Justice brought a prosecution. During the battle over the bailout law in 2019, there were suspicions that FirstEnergy was bankrolling the effort, but the press and public couldn’t know because the money was being funneled through dark-money groups — without which U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said the conspiracy would have been impossible.

Now that FirstEnergy’s 2017 donation to a Husted-aligned group is known, it raises new questions.

Special interests sometimes piously claim that they spend millions on politics solely in the interests of “good government.” But as was shown in Householder’s lengthy trial last year, corporate political donations are often — if not usually — intended to buy influence with people in government.

In order for that to happen, a government official would have to know that a special interest had contributed on his or her behalf. But Husted — who is eyeing a 2026 gubernatorial run — won’t say whether he knew that FirstEnergy in 2017 gave a million bucks to a group supporting his earlier bid.

His spokeswoman, Hayley Carducci, was asked if Husted knew of the contribution and if he did, when he learned of it. She was also asked if Husted persuaded DeWine to support the FirstEnergy bailout; what Husted knew about Randazzo’s links to FirstEnergy when he was picked to regulate the company; and whether he knew that FirstEnergy was flooding Cap Square with dark money in its effort to pass and preserve the bailout.

In an email, Carducci repeated her earlier statement: “The Husted campaign never received this donation and is not affiliated with any of these groups.”

She added, “As for your other questions, we will not be commenting.”

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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