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Gov. DeWine deflects questions about texts between him and indicted FirstEnergy executives

Gov. Mike DeWine shrugging at Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau's questions
Posted at 7:03 PM, Jun 17, 2024

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Governor Mike DeWine deflected questions about his relationship with former FirstEnergy executives after text messages revealed he asked for money ahead of his first gubernatorial campaign. He also seemed frustrated with our questions about him allegedly being informed about half a million dollars that the now-indicted CEO put into a dark money PAC for him.

For years, the governor downplayed any financial connection to FirstEnergy and its embattled executives. But a records request filed by a group of news organizations, including News 5’s media partner, the Ohio Capital Journal, paints a different picture. Cleveland.com was the first to report the text messages.

Texts between the governor and former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones show a relationship between the pair during Dewine's first run for governor.

“Chuck. Can you call me?” DeWine wrote on October 13, 2018 — less than a month before he faced off against Democrat Rich Cordray in the governor's race. “OEA put in million yesterday for Cordray.”

"OK," Jones responded. "I’ll call at 2:30.”

Jones and former FirstEnergy Senior Vice President Michael Dowling were hit with state bribery charges. They pleaded not guilty during their joint arraignment in mid-February. They are accused of masterminding the corruption scheme.

FirstEnergy has already admitted to bribing public officials to help the company behind the scenes — in one way — by pushing and helping to create H.B. 6. Back in 2019, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder took a $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation to give FirstEnergy a $1 billion bailout, named H.B. 6, all at the expense of the taxpayers.

This landed Householder in federal prison for 20 years, and he is now facing state charges, as well.

This bribery scandal has been covered extensively by News 5's Morgan Trau, who followed the legislation all the way through the Statehouse, the arrests, trial, conviction and sentencing of Householder and former GOP leader Matt Borges. She continues to follow it as the next group is indicted federally and by the state.

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But texts came out during the Householder trial and in the indictment that show FirstEnergy was communicating with DeWine — and about him and Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted.

Now, I received new records that Case Western Reserve University law professor Mike Benza says don’t look good for the governor.

"What you have with Dewine and Dewine's family is a connection with money coming out of FirstEnergy, going to their political — either proxies or affiliates — in furtherance of that, which again adds to the bad optics of what's going on," Benza said.

In text messages, Dowling says, "Chuck — go ahead and call Mike DeWine on the $500k. It’s going to RGA’s C(4) called state solutions. All set."

Jones responds, "OK. I’ll call him around 5."

I confronted the governor during an unrelated press conference about these messages. He was not pleased with the interest from reporters.

"I don't remember," the governor said about a conversation between Jones and himself.

"We were very mindful of no coordination between any independent expenditure," the governor continued. "And we followed the law."

DeWine has been subpoenaed for documents in a civil case, but he has not been accused of any wrongdoing by law enforcement.

The governor continued to defend himself, using the "politics as usual" argument.

"I'm making a lot of calls to a lot of people asking for money," DeWine said. "And if that call was made, I have no doubt it was made."

This is a legitimate argument, Benza said, although it doesn't look great to use.

"At least in the public documents — nothing shows that same type of quid pro quo going to Jon Husted or Governor DeWine," the professor said. "It certainly has the appearance of it, but there's no smoking gun in this type of a case yet... but I think they have to be worried."

I exclusively obtained a speech given by Chuck Jones, seemingly at his house, during a DeWine/Husted fundraiser on August 14, 2018.

"[DeWine and Husted's] vision, experience and strong leadership will be great for our state, our communities, our company and our shareholders," Jones said.

When I read this out loud to DeWine while asking questions, he seemed to nod or tilt his head from side to side. I also read him a portion about his second-in-command.

"Jon has always been very accessible and great to work with, and I can say without question, he is a good friend of FirstEnergy," Jones continued in his speech.

The former CEO then went on to say that DeWine and Husted joining together for a campaign "saved us some money... Otherwise, we would've had to contribute to two rival campaigns with candidates we supported."

The governor didn't address this part of my question. The Lt. Gov.'s team pointed us back to Jones and other FirstEnergy executives.

"These are people talking about him; not with him. So, we can’t comment on their conversations, you would have to ask them," Husted's spokesperson Hayley Carducci responded when I asked about it.

Not only are there the texts, but the DeWine administration has been wrapped up with another scandal-ridden individual: Sam Randazzo.

Back in Feb., DeWine defended his top advisor after a criminal indictment alleged she knew about millions going to Randazzo from FirstEnergy right before he was appointed to power by the governor. She helped vet the former chair of the Public Utilities Commission, the supposed watchdog of utilities after her family had already received a $10,000 loan from him. She is now a witness in the criminal trial against Jones and Dowling, DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney confirmed.

The governor's team insists she didn't know the millions was a bribe payment.

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Randazzo was charged with dozens of crimes related to bribery and embezzlement. He allegedly received more than $4.3 million in bribes from FirstEnergy, according to Department of Justice officials and Attorney General Dave Yost — and FirstEnergy admitted it themselves.

Randazzo committed suicide in April after he was indicted in both state and federal court. He is the second man, out of eight, to take his own life due to being connected to the scandal. Neil Clark, a lobbyist accused of bribery, died after pleading not guilty in 2021.

Based on all of the above information, I asked DeWine why anyone should believe what he was saying.

"Why should ratepayers believe you — that you didn't have anything to do with this?" I asked.

"Didn't have anything to do with what?" the governor responded.

"The corruption scheme," I said.

He was silent for a significant moment.

"I'm trying to count the years — 45 years in public office, 45 years of trying to do the best that I can do, 45 years without any kind of personal scandal," the governor said. "That's why."

"There are text messages saying that there's $500,000 that was going to a dark money PAC and that they were gonna call you about it," I responded. "Do you understand how that concerns people?"

"I think I've answered the question," DeWine said, adding that his reputation is important to him.

Questions were cut off shortly after.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.