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FirstEnergy gave $1 million to boost Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s campaign before scandal, document shows

Versions of this story were published by Floodlight, Energy News Network and the Ohio Capital Journal. 

A surge in FirstEnergy political spending ahead of the utility’s push to secure a legislative bailout for its nuclear power plants included a $1 million dark money contribution to support the campaign of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s eventual running mate.

The previously unreported gift linked to Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s 2017 primary bid was revealed as part of a raft of documents obtained under Ohio’s public records law by a coalition of news organizations, including Floodlight, Energy News Network and the Ohio Capital Journal.

Among the documents are company emails describing behind-the-scenes efforts by Husted to persuade DeWine to support House Bill 6, the utility-backed legislation at the heart of the state’s ongoing $60 million public bribery scandal. 

Neither Husted nor DeWine, whose campaign also benefited from a previously reported $1 million in dark money from the utility, has been implicated in the scheme in which eight people, including the state’s former House Speaker Larry Householder, have been indicted.

Two of those charged in the multi-million-dollar scandal surrounding the passage of HB 6 may have taken their own lives, including Sam Randazzo, the former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, who was found dead earlier this week of an apparent suicide.  

‘Confidential’ email details campaign gift

One of the documents from the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Office is a spreadsheet attached to a January 2020 message labeled “confidential.” It shows $1 million went from FirstEnergy to the conservative group Freedom Frontier in 2017, with “Husted campaign” noted as the reason.  

That group backed Husted during his 2017 primary campaign for governor. The group then supported DeWine after Husted dropped out of the race to become his running mate.

Husted is considered among possible front runners for the Republican nomination for governor in 2026. A January report by the Jon Husted for Ohio campaign committee shows it got roughly $1.7 million last year. 

Husted was also dubbed the “‘Golden Boy’ for FirstEnergy” by lobbyist Neil Clark, a co-defendant with Householder and others in the federal government’s criminal corruption case. Clark died by suicide in 2021.

In several of the recently released records, Husted is mentioned in the same breath as Householder, the convicted House speaker, and Randazzo, the former PUCO commissioner, by FirstEnergy leadership as they sought to pass and then defend HB 6, the nuclear and coal bailout law at the heart of Ohio’s ongoing corruption scandal. 

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Husted has maintained that his support for the 2019 law stemmed from his belief that nuclear energy is an important part of Ohio’s energy portfolio. Parties in HB 6-related shareholder litigation have subpoenaed Husted to answer questions under oath, although a new date needs to be set.

“The Husted campaign never received this donation and is not affiliated with any of these groups,” said spokesperson Hayley Carducci. By law, candidate campaigns are not supposed to coordinate with groups like Freedom Frontier, which can spend unlimited amounts to support or attack them.

The document and others reflect a major commitment by FirstEnergy to Husted’s political future. Before 2017, the company’s reported political spending to support Husted was less than $25,000 per campaign, according to data from OpenSecrets. 

Dark money spending rises sharply

More broadly, the document also indicates a major increase in FirstEnergy’s political spending through nonprofit groups exempt from taxes under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Those, along with privately held corporations, are common structures for dark money organizations — groups that aren’t required by law to disclose the ultimate source of their funding.

The company’s giving to such groups jumped to more than $12 million in 2017, after much lower levels of $200,000 in 2016 and $100,000 in 2015, according to the spreadsheet. 

Starting in 2014, FirstEnergy had sought bailouts for noncompetitive coal and nuclear plants. And in late 2016, regulators approved a $456 million consumer surcharge that ultimately was held unlawful. Yet the company claimed it needed more. 

The document details once-secret contributions to groups supporting “everyone from the mayor of Akron to President Trump that FirstEnergy made to secure bailouts for its soon-to-be bankrupt coal and nuclear plants and to gain influence on other key issues,” said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute. 

Anderson added that the spreadsheet also “provides some key new evidence for utility regulators and consumer advocates to use to ensure that every dollar of ratepayer money that FirstEnergy misused to fund its secret political spending is publicly disclosed and refunded, with interest and ideally serious financial penalties.”

At the time, the author of the document that details the donations, Kristina Housley, was executive assistant to FirstEnergy’s Mike Dowling, who is now a defendant in a state criminal case along with former CEO Chuck Jones. 

Finding out all the details about the dark money spending behind HB 6 is like peeling back the layers of an onion, said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. 

“The reason that transparency matters so much is that money that is spent in the shadows influences elections, and it influences really important policy decisions that impact us every day,” Turcer said. “And we have the right to know what is going on in government and how decisions are being made and who’s attempting to influence those decisions.”

The ‘Golden Boy’ for FirstEnergy

A December 2017 email from former FirstEnergy lobbyist Joel Bailey said Husted was working to get DeWine on board with FirstEnergy’s “issues.” FirstEnergy also supported other pro-DeWine/Husted efforts during the election cycle.

After the election, Husted and DeWine dined with Jones and Dowling on December 18, 2018. Later that night, FirstEnergy agreed to pay $4.3 million to energy lawyer Randazzo, who went on to become DeWine’s first pick for chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. FirstEnergy later identified Jones and Dowling as the two people responsible for paying alleged bribes. 

Husted’s office has been evasive about his recollections, despite Jones noting in texts to Randazzo that the PUCO chair position was discussed in at least general terms. Another text by Jones in 2019 said the DeWine/Husted team was forced “to perform battlefield triage” to secure Randazzo’s nomination after a 198-page dossier provided to DeWine’s staff threatened to derail it.

Evidence from last year’s criminal trial of Householder, the former Ohio House speaker, and lobbyist Matt Borges also included messages between former FirstEnergy executives Jones and Dowling about Husted working behind the scenes to build support for the bill. Among the actions were efforts to extend the bailout period for the company’s former nuclear power plants in Ohio.

Husted long a friend of utilities

Husted had been Ohio’s secretary of state immediately before becoming lieutenant governor. Before that, he served as House speaker in the General Assembly. In that role, he played a pivotal part in securing passage of another major energy bill, Senate Bill 221. 

At the time, Husted supported the law’s clean energy standards that were ultimately gutted by HB 6. However, SB 221 set the stage for so-called electric security plans. Those have let FirstEnergy and other utilities avoid full rate cases for more than a decade, while allowing cross-subsidies and adding multiple additional charges to consumers’ bills. 

“That bill upset the balance” of energy regulation in Ohio, said Ashley Brown, a former PUCO commissioner. “It was a humongous gift for the utilities.”

Lawmakers repealed HB 6’s $1 billion-plus in subsidies for FirstEnergy’s former nuclear power plants and its recession-proofing provisions in 2021, eight months after the arrests of Householder and others. 

Earlier this year, Husted told NBC4 in Columbus the rest of HB 6 “needs to be completely removed.” He did not respond to Energy News Network questions this week about whether that includes both the law’s subsidies for two 1950s-era coal plants and its gutting of Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. 

FirstEnergy spokesperson Jennifer Young declined to comment on the company’s 2017 donation to Freedom Frontier due to ongoing litigation. However, she added, “FirstEnergy will post information regarding its support of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations on the company’s website on a quarterly basis.”

Those disclosures are currently required under the company’s July 2021 deferred prosecution agreement. That agreement expires later this year.

Meanwhile, FirstEnergy still has not disclosed its dark money spending for the years 2018 through 2020. And proposals for reforms that would require such disclosures from all electric utilities remain stalled in the General Assembly.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that Ohioans can be aware that dark money impacted decision-making at the statehouse,” Turcer said, “and yet we still haven’t gotten the legislators to create greater transparency.”

The Energy News Network is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping influencers, policymakers and citizens informed of the important changes taking place in the transition to a clean energy system. Floodlight is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action. 

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