FirstEnergy CEO Steven Strah abruptly retires as HB6-related management review ends

COLUMBUS — FirstEnergy CEO Steven Strah unexpectedly retired Friday, the company announced Thursday.

While the Akron-based utility didn’t provide a reason why Strah decided to step down, his decision comes as the company announced it has completed a review of its management team.

That review was part of a proposed lawsuit settlement agreement to resolve claims that company leaders’ failure to provide proper oversight led to the company paying $60 million in bribes to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder’s political operation to secure the passage of House Bill 6. The sweeping 2019 energy law gave, among other perks for FirstEnergy, a $1 billion-plus ratepayer bailout to two Northern Ohio nuclear power plants owned by a then-subsidiary of the company.

John W. Somerhalder II, chair of FirstEnergy’s board of directors, has been named interim president and chief executive officer, according to a company release. The FirstEnergy board will launch a search of candidates from outside the company to find a permanent CEO, the release stated.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young said early Thursday evening that she didn’t know if Strah’s decision to retire was connected to the management review. Young said the board supports Strah’s decision to retire.

“Details of the management review are not planned to be shared,” Young stated in an email.

Strah will receive no severance payments or benefits, FirstEnergy stated in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. However, “as is the case generally for executive officers who retire from the company,” Strah is eligible for some retirement benefits, FirstEnergy stated in its filing.

Besides Strah’s retirement, no other company personnel moves have been made, Young said.

Strah was named CEO of FirstEnergy in March 2021 after the company fired its previous CEO, Chuck Jones. FirstEnergy later admitted that Jones helped conspire to pay the bribery money to Householder, as well as additional millions in bribes to Sam Randazzo, the former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Jones, Householder, and Randazzo have all denied breaking the law; so far, only Householder has been charged with a crime.

Strah has not been accused of any wrongdoing. However, last month emails from 2019 became public between Strah and two other (since-fired) FirstEnergy executives regarding plans to pass a so-called “decoupling” measure allowing the company to charge customers millions of dollars more than it otherwise would be allowed.

In one email, Strah wrote that he “completely understand(s) the ‘under the radar’ aspect” of FirstEnergy’s — ultimately successful — plans to include the “decoupling” language in HB6. After Householder’s arrest in 2020, state lawmakers repealed the “decoupling” provision as well as the nuclear bailout.

Strah was also named as a defendant in the civil lawsuit that FirstEnergy agreed to settle with shareholders for $180 million and other provisions, including the management review. U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley ostensibly gave final approval to the settlement last month, but another federal judge, John Adams, has so far refused to sign off on the deal, saying not enough information about the bribery scandal has been collected.

After starting as a meter reader for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. in 1984, Strah gradually moved up in the company ranks, holding a variety of positions in the Midwest and the East for five of FirstEnergy’s subsidiaries. He has been based at FirstEnergy headquarters since 2006.

When Strah was named CEO, he said in a statement that he was committed to “fostering a culture of uncompromising integrity and ethical behavior, starting from the top.”