COLUMBUS — The group gathering signatures in the bid to repeal the House Bill 6 billion-dollar bailout of two nuclear power plants claims supporters of the legislation are illegally buying signed petitions from their circualators.
Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts have compiled about 25 confirmed reports of circulators being offered or paid money — large sums in some cases — to turn over their signatures and stop collecting them, said Chris Finney, a Cincinnati lawyer representing the group.
“They’re going to our petitioners and paying them double (what they are being paid) to turn over signatures,” he said.
“They are buying more signatures from our petitioners than we are some days,” Finney told The Dispatch. “We know a lot of paid petitioners are not turning in anything.”
Gene Pierce, spokesman for the effort to place a repeal measure before voter on the November 2020 ballot, said the reports of misconduct by opponents have been turned over to the office of Attorney General Dave Yost for investigation. Finney also said some reports also have been filed with unidentified local police departments.
Ohio law makes if a fifth-degree felony, carrying up to 12 months in prison, to purchase signed petitions. The office of Yost, who on Monday warned House Bill 6 supporters to not harass referendum workers, confirmed Thursday it is looking into what a spokesman called “rumors.”
Two organizations opposing the referendum effort deny any wrongdoing by their representatives, who work as “blockers” to confront petition circulators and try to convince voters not to sign — and are gathering signatures on a non-binding petition opposing foreign ownership of electric power plants.
“We do not engage in this type of activity. We have followed the law, and will continue to exercise our First Amendment rights,” said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for Ohioans for Energy Security, which is spending millions on TV ads and on-the-ground efforts in an effort to derail the signature-gathering effort.
“Despite the millions of dollars Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts has spent on this misguided repeal effort, they appear to be falling short of the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. Now they’re looking for excuses. Their allegations are nothing more than a desperate and fraudulent attempt to buy more time for their failing effort. Shame on them,” he said.
Curt Steiner, spokesman for Generation Now, said his group and FieldWorks (the company it hired to deploy blockers) “are unfamiliar with these allegations and have not engaged in these practices.”
Finney said he is researching legal means of trying to halt the alleged buying of signed referendum petitions. He called the harassment of referendum petition circulators “the most outrageous stuff I have personally been involved in in terms of election interference.”
Pierce alleged the conduct of forces behind House Bill 6 are potentially compromising the ability of Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts to obtain the valid signatures of 265,774 registered Ohio voters by Oct. 21 to place a repeal referendum on the November 2020 ballot. If the referendum is certified to the ballot, it would delay the implementation of the law until after the vote.
Signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, House Bill 6 will impose up to an 85-cent monthly charge on most residential electricity bills to generate $150 million a year to subsidize the Lake Erie plants owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions. The bankrupt company threatened to close the plants without a subsidy, and it will shut them down if the referendum qualifies for the ballot, LoParo has said.
The organizations bankrolling the anti-referendum efforts are secret. They are dark-money groups not required to disclose their contributions and spending. The owners of natural gas power plants are others are behind the referendum effort, and eventually will have to disclose their contributions and spending.
Proponents of House Bill 6 say it will save thousands of jobs and allow the nuclear plants to continue to produce carbon-free electricity.