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Utility and fossil fuel influence in Ohio goes beyond passage of bailout

Dark money loopholes remain, while people linked to utilities and fossil fuels hold public office or enjoy ongoing access to government officials.

This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join our free mailing list or the mailing list for the Energy New Network as this helps us provide more public service reporting.

By Kathiann M. Kowalski

Dark money loopholes remain in Ohio law, despite last month’s surgical repeal of part of the law at the heart of a $60 million corruption scandal. Meanwhile, more evidence has emerged in recent months, detailing the flow of money by groups engaged in the House Bill 6 scandal and showing close ties between current and former utility lobbyists and Gov. Mike DeWine, as well as various lawmakers.

“We need to learn from our mistakes,” said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a group that advocates for more transparency and accountability in politics. She noted that the House Bill 6 case is just the latest in a line of corruption scandals that have rocked state politics in the past two decades.

A federal complaint released last July alleged an unlawful conspiracy to elect lawmakers who would favor Rep. Larry Householder as House speaker, secure passage of House Bill 6 and defend it against a referendum. A court filing by FirstEnergy in March admits that millions of dollars went from one of its subsidiaries either directly or indirectly to Generation Now, the primary dark money group at the center of the alleged scheme, or to other entities alleged to have played roles. Some funds were paid at the direction of FirstEnergy Solutions, the document claims.

In addition to promptly repealing the whole law, legislators should have pursued action to prevent such a situation from happening again, Turcer said. Instead, “there was not any indication in place during the summer of a path of how to make sure we don’t create a space for misdeeds.”

Efforts by FirstEnergy and others to make political contributions through dark money organizations — 501(c)(4) nonprofits and some political for-profits that are not required to disclose their donors — have touched numerous entities with connections throughout the Ohio government, according to data from various sources.

The Accountability Project is a national database that collects records of federal campaign contributions, grants from nonprofits, expenditures by political action committees and more. The database also identifies shared addresses and other links among individuals and organizations.

Among other things, the database reveals that Generation Now’s address shown on a 2017 corporate filing was the same as that for co-defendant Jeff Longstreth and his business JPL & Associates. JPL & Associates was shown as the president and secretary on an October 2019 IRS filing by Generation Now.

The Accountability Project information also indicates that in 2018 Generation Now and JPL & Associates did business at a Capitol Square office tower. The same suite address was used at various times that same year for Friends of Larry Householder, the Committee to Elect Bill Roemer, Harris for Ohio and  Barhorst for Ohio.

In earlier years the same suite address had been used by the Coalition for Growth and Opportunity, which received money from an American Electric Power-funded group. The office suite is unoccupied now, but at some earlier point the suite also had been the office address for a bespoke tailoring business. (The company moved out of the space years ago, Eye on Ohio and the Energy News Network learned.)

Nonetheless, utilities and fossil fuel interests seek to continue to tailor Ohio energy policies to their benefit. Among other things, most candidates elected in 2018 whose campaigns got money from the alleged HB 6 scheme were reelected in 2020. Their incumbent statuses would have given them a bump, according to David Anderson, policy and communications director for the Energy and Policy Institute. Federal filings indicate substantial additional spending for the last election cycle as well, he added.

FirstEnergy and its political action committee reported more than $1.1 million in campaign donations for 2019 and 2020, primarily to Republicans, the National Institute on Money in Politics reports. Nearly half a million of that went to candidates in Ohio.

Those reported amounts don’t include spending by any dark money groups the company or other energy companies with utilities in Ohio might have donated to. The Growth & Opportunity political action committee had spent money in early 2020 to influence several Ohio primaries, Anderson noted.

Close ties

DeWine signed HB 6 into law within hours of its passage in July 2019. Even after HB 6 passed, close ties have remained between utilities and fossil fuel interests, on the one hand, and leadership in Ohio’s legislative and executive branches.

Since the federal complaint was released last July 21, DeWine has stood by Dan McCarthy, whom he appointed as his director of legislative affairs in early 2019. As a lobbyist at the Success Group in Columbus, McCarthy had long been active in state politics and has contributed to a variety of campaigns, as data from the Accountability Project shows.

McCarthy was a registered lobbyist representing FirstEnergy in 2017 and 2018, when the events alleged in the HB 6 conspiracy began, according to data from the Ohio Lobbying Activity Center. He also was president of Partners for Progress, the FirstEnergy-funded “Energy Pass-Through” organization that allegedly funneled millions of dollars into efforts to pass and preserve HB 6.

The bio released by DeWine’s office when he appointed McCarthy in 2019 shows that he had previously managed several political campaigns in addition to working for the Success Group. McCarthy resigned from Partners for Progress before assuming his current government position. 

His former Success Group colleague McKenzie Davis was a director for Partners for Progress through at least 2019, according to a November 2020 IRS filing by the group. The report also shows R. Scott Davis as president and secretary, and lawyer Michael Van Buren at Calfee, Halter & Griswold in Cleveland as treasurer. 

The IRS filing showed that $13 million went from Partners for Progress to Generation Now in 2019, plus additional amounts to other organizations for “political campaign intervention,” lobbying and “educating the public about utility options.” Funds from two of those dark money groups supported DeWine’s campaign, as well as an unsuccessful campaign by his daughter Alice DeWine, the Cincinnati Enquirer has reported.

Other lawyers at Van Buren’s firm represented FirstEnergy in cases before the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, including one begun after news of the HB 6 scandal broke, for the purpose of determining if funds from FirstEnergy’s utility ratepayers were spent on HB 6 activities. Attorneys from Jones Day are now counsel in some of those cases.

“It looks a bit different when the lawyers who defend you work for the firm that was part of that political spending,” Anderson said. Van Buren and a colleague did not respond to an inquiry about the reason for the change.

On call

FirstEnergy was not the only utility with ongoing links to the governor’s office. An October 2019 email recently released by Common Cause Ohio last month shows that the DeWine-Husted campaign held a weekly finance call, even though they’re not up for reelection until next year. The call list included multiple people with ties to utilities and fossil fuels, including FirstEnergy lobbyist Josh Rubin of the CJR Group, Duke Energy Business Services lobbyist Chip Gerhardt of Government Strategies Group, and Ohio Coal Association lobbyist Richard Hillis of Governmental Policy Group. The Governmental Policy Group’s address has been used by several political action committees throughout the years, Accountability Project data show.

Also on the DeWine-Husted finance call list was J.B. Hadden, who has been president of Empowering Ohio’s Economy, one of the dark money groups that had also paid money to Generation Now. As of last summer, American Electric Power had contributed a total of $8.7 million to Empowering Ohio’s Economy since 2015, including $700,000 in 2019, according to company spokesperson Scott Blake. “We will continue to legally and ethically advocate on behalf of our customers and our company,” Blake said.

AEP’s vice president for external affairs, Tom Froehle, also has been a board member of Empowering Ohio’s Economy, dating back to 2016, Blake confirmed.

Froehle and AEP Director of Government Affairs Maria Haberman met with Householder in February 2020, after HB 6 was law but before the scandal broke last summer, Anderson noted. Householder’s calendar didn’t indicate what the meeting was about.

As for Empowering Ohio’s Economy, its 2019 tax filing showed more than half a million dollars going to Generation Now. Donations to several other organizations included a $25,000 contribution to the Ohio Governor’s Residence & Office Fund, which is yet another dark money group. It has spent nearly $200,000 on meetings at the residence “to promote better and more efficient government.”

Another $2 million went from Empowering Ohio’s Economy to another dark money group, Open Road Path, in 2019 “to promote economic and business development within Ohio.” Hadden did not respond to a request for additional information for this article.

Regulatory connections

Anne Vogel, former managing director of AEP’s government affairs office, became DeWine’s assistant director for energy and natural resources starting in March 2019. By July, HB 6 was passed. 

In December 2020, Vogel became a finalist to replace Sam Randazzo as chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Randazzo resigned the day after a FirstEnergy government filing stated that the company had paid $4 million in early 2019 to an entity apparently linked to Randazzo. After criticisms surfaced about last December’s list of PUCO nominees, DeWine ultimately asked for additional names and appointed Jenifer French to the post.

The PUCO nominating council likewise has connections to utilities and fossil fuel interests. Chair Michael Koren was a registered lobbyist for FirstEnergy through 2019. He chaired the committee that nominated Randazzo for the PUCO in 2019. Ohio Lobbying Activity Center data shows Koren also has been a lobbyist for Columbia Gas and Boich Companies, which made its fortune in the coal industry.

Randazzo’s calendar for the time he was PUCO chair shows multiple meetings with people from utility companies or their parent corporations, as well as with coal fleet lobbyist Michelle Bloodworth

“I am unaware of any meeting in which a commissioner held a discussion of pending proceedings,” said PUCO spokesperson Matt Schilling, noting that meetings otherwise “could have been regarding any number of general energy or commercial transportation matters relative [to] the delivery of adequate, safe and reliable utility service.”

Nonetheless, the Energy and Policy Institute’s Anderson said, the absence of detailed notations in the calendar presents “definitely a lot of potential conflicts.”

Accountability Project data also shows that AEP’s Froehle, Randazzo and Scott Elisar, the PUCO’s current legislative and policy director, all had worked at the same law firm, McNees, Wallace & Nurick. The firm has long represented Industrial Energy Users-Ohio, which has pushed for limiting clean energy standards, and whose members have long enjoyed favorable rates from utilities.

Still ahead

Dark money loopholes made the alleged HB 6 scheme possible. “Dark money is a breeding ground for corruption,” former U.S. attorney David DeVillers said when the indictment was filed last July. The federal investigation continues, although the pandemic delayed some grand jury proceedings, he told the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Governing Board on March 16. In-person meetings of the grand jury have recently resumed, he noted.

“[For] a lot of these cases that have been on the back burner, you can expect to see a lot more indictments coming,” DeVillers said.

This year, House Bill 13 aims to address some dark money issues. A hearing will be held in the coming week, so there’s at least some potential for lawmakers to take action this session. But so far, Turcer said, “it’s just that they have completely dragged their feet.”

This story is part of a collaborative journalism project produced by the Energy News Network and Eye on Ohio, the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism. Funding is provided by the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Accountability Project at American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

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