Not so quick, FirstEnergy. Your contrition and $230 million plea deal might satisfy shareholders, but it’s far from the end of your embarrassing saga and the need for significant political reforms in Ohio.
The Akron-based utility that spans five states formally admitted Thursday to bribing state leaders to pad its bottom line at the expense of all Ohio ratepayers. The company agreed to pay a $230 million fine, with $115 million earmarked for helping people pay their utility bills. Ratepayers can’t be assessed the cost.
Shareholder lawsuits bolstered by Thursday’s criminal admissions and possible Securities and Exchange Commission and Public Utilities Commission of Ohio enforcement actions still cloud FirstEnergy’s future. Its reputation remains tarnished by the outright greed of its former leaders in their pursuit of a $1 billion taxpayer bailout for two nuclear plants and special “decoupling fees” through House Bill 6 and cancellation of a scheduled 2024 PUCO review that could have reduced rates.
Text messages from those executives paint a disturbing picture of how they used millions of dollars to purchase the influence of indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and former PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo, who resigned last year after his house was raided by the FBI.
There’s no reasonable doubt that FirstEnergy was running the Ohio Statehouse for years only to be thwarted by a tip federal prosecutors turned into our state’s largest public corruption case.
They came very close to stealing your money.
Now, Ohioans need to demand additional personal accountability and real changes to ensure politicians resist the temptation to put corporate and personal interests ahead of the people who elect them.
First, it’s clear that additional people should be prosecuted for apparent corruption. Allowing the company to accept a negotiated prosecution without holding individuals accountable would send a horrible message to corporate America. We’re confident this conduct is not protected by the First Amendment as Householder claims. Prosecutors declined on Thursday to comment on additional prosecutions.
Next, Ohio law must be changed to require more disclosure for all spending that influences Ohio elections and public issues.
FirstEnergy Corp. and FirstEnergy Solutions, now called Energy Harbor, donated $59 million to Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) dark money group controlled by Householder. FirstEnergy used its own group, called Partners for Progress, to fund Generation Now. The secret funding fueled Householder’s return to the speakership, his push for HB 6 and eventually a revolting and xenophobic campaign to thwart a referendum.
While federal law and the Supreme Court’s unfortunate Citizens United ruling make these so-called social welfare groups and contributions legal, there’s nothing stopping Ohio from demanding more transparency in all political ads. Let’s require all advertising campaigns to publicly release top funders, including the original sources, to avoid donation-hiding schemes.
For a democracy to thrive, citizens need a full accounting of the people and corporations seeking to influence public officials and policies.
Third, the PUCO must keep its commitment to a 2024 review of FirstEnergy’s rates. Randazzo is accused of killing the review not long after taking PUCO’s helm and accepting $4.3 million from FirstEnergy. The public deserves a full, transparent review of rates as PUCO has agreed to do in a Dec. 30 decision.
Finally, Ohio needs a complete overhaul of its energy policy, which has been further damaged by Senate Bill 52, which, surprisingly, Gov. Mike DeWine signed this month.
With global warming concerns growing, this law gives local authorities power to stop wind and solar power generation proposals, while denying the same rights for nuclear, oil and gas projects such as pipelines.
Republicans say they are protecting rural landscapes. But given the culture of corruption in the Statehouse, one can’t help but wonder if lawmakers are really helping the powerful gas and oil lobby instead. House Bill 6 also gutted Ohio’s renewable energy standards in defiance of any common environmental sense.
It’s been a year since Householder’s arrest and little has changed in Columbus.
It’s time to demand real reform or new representatives.
It’s your money after all.