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After scandal broke, FirstEnergy lobbyist pushed DeWine on 'covid response'

Lobbyist helped direct dark-money group implicated in bribery scandal
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Posted at 8:03 AM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 15:58:26-04

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on under a content-sharing agreement.

On Sept. 23, 2020, McKenzie K. Davis, a lobbyist with the Success Group, registered to lobby the administration of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on “covid response.”

The timing is curious because only six weeks earlier, federal authorities announced they’d arrested then-Speaker Larry Householder and four associates in what they said was “likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scheme ever in the state of Ohio.” Also implicated in the corrupt scheme was the company on whose behalf Davis had registered to lobby: Akron-based FirstEnergy.

Davis’s ties to the bribery scheme, as first reported by the Energy and Policy Institute, run deeper than that. In 2019, he served on the board of Partners for Progress, a 501(c)(4) “dark money” group that federal prosecutors say funneled tens of millions of FirstEnergy dollars into the corrupt effort to make Householder speaker and pass a $1.3 billion package while McKenzie served on the money group’s board.

The law, signed by DeWine, propped up two aging nuclear plants, as well as two 66-year-old coal plants — including one that isn’t even in Ohio. And in this time of dire climate news, it gutted standards for energy efficiency and renewables.

Householder has been removed as speaker and expelled from the House, two of his associates have pleaded guilty and a third has died by suicide. A separate dark-money group, Generation Now, has also pleaded guilty.

FirstEnergy last month entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in which it admitted to its role in the scandal and agreed to pay the state $230 million.

It also admitted paying $4.3 million to Sam Ramdazzo just before DeWine appointed him to be the state’s top utility regulator. Randazzo proceeded to do favors for the utility that were worth at least hundreds of millions, the agreement said.

DeWine won’t say he regrets appointing Randazzo and Randazzo — who hasn’t been charged — denies wrongdoing.

But Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican like DeWine, last week added Randazzo and former FirstEnergy executives as defendants in a racketeering suit against FirstEnergy, calling the company’s payment to Randazzo a “bribe.” Then on Friday, Yost moved to freeze Randazzo’s assets, saying Randazzo this year transferred a $500,000 property to his son and sold others worth $4.3 million.

Questions were raised about Partners for Progress, one of the dark money groups involved in the scandal, almost as soon as arrests were announced on Aug. 12, 2020. Two days later, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that in 2017 Dan McCarthy, then a FirstEnergy lobbyist, founded Partners for Progress. He resigned as its president in early 2019 to become DeWine’s legislative affairs director — a post from which he worked to pass the corrupt bailout measure, the deferred prosecution agreement says.

Even so, McCarthy continues in his position and he continues to have DeWine’s support.

But in announcing the deferred-prosecution agreement, Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel said the entire scandal “would not have been possible” without dark money gushing through Partners for Progress and Generation Now.

“These are supposed to be, according to the (tax) code, social welfare organizations. You all see a lot of social welfare going on? I don’t,” Patel said, adding, “What about these names? Partners for Progress? What are the partners here? The conspirators? What’s the progress? Passage of (the energy bailout) through bribery?”

So what was Partners for Progress Director and FirstEnergy lobbyist Davis asking DeWine for last September as the company was in the throes of a corruption scandal and Ohio was in the throes of a pandemic?

A call to Davis’s firm, the Success Group, was unreturned.

The Energy and Policy Institute noted that was right around the time that FirstEnergy resumed disconnections even though many Ohioans were out of work due to the pandemic.