The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
An energy lobbyist who Gov. Mike DeWine appointed as the state’s top regulator of public utilities received $22 million from FirstEnergy Corp. in the decade before his appointment — including $4.3 million paid just before assuming the post and specifically to execute official duties to benefit the Akron-based utility — court documents revealed Thursday.
Sam Randazzo, who resigned as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio after federal agents raided his Columbus home, used his PUCO chairmanship to scuttle a requirement that FirstEnergy undergo a rate review set for 2024, which company executives believed would hurt its bottom line, the documents state.
FirstEnergy entered into a deferred prosecution agreement — in which the U.S. Department of Justice could drop the charge if the company meets certain conditions including a $230 million criminal penalty — on one count of wire fraud.
It also agreed to a stipulation of facts detailing its nearly $61 million in payments to an account the former speaker of the Ohio House allegedly controlled and spent to pass House Bill 6, legislation worth an estimated $1.3 billion to the company.
Thursday’s filing, however, is flush with new details about FirstEnergy’s long relationship with Randazzo, dating back to a contract in 2010 and a consulting deal inked in 2013.
The agreement states one FirstEnergy executive texted another on Nov. 15, 2019 that Randazzo is “going to make the requirement [for a rate review] to file go away, but I do not know specifically how he plans to do it.” The document doesn’t directly identify the executives.
On Nov. 21, 2019, PUCO issued an order finding it is “no longer necessary or appropriate” that three utilities owned by FirstEnergy file a new case when its current rate structure expires in 2024.
Executive 1 thanked Randazzo via text the next day, according to prosecutors, attaching an image showing the company’s stock price increasing.
An email for Randazzo on file with the Supreme Court is no longer in operation. In a statement obtained by the Cincinnati Enquirer, he said he executed his duties as chairman lawfully and denied performing any action to advance FirstEnergy’s interests. He said all payments to him were made under his consulting agreement with the utility.
“In the fall of 2020, it became clear that issues surrounding House Bill 6 and a public attack on my background and character had escalated to a point that made it impossible for me to effectively perform my duties at the PUCO,” he said, explaining his choice to step down.
According to prosecutors, Executive 1 and Executive 2 met Randazzo at his condo in late December 2018 to discuss remaining $4.3 million on his consulting agreement and a job posting for a PUCO seat. FirstEnergy had no legal requirement to make the payment but did so anyways.
When a related court filing divulged Randazzo’s company accepted payments from FirstEnergy, executives worried the disclosure would torpedo the appointment. However, it only “grazed the temple,” they said, and forced “State Official 1” and “State Official 2” to perform “battlefield triage.”
The governor nominates PUCO commissioners off a shortlist from a nomination council. A DeWine spokesman did not answer specific inquiries, including whether the governor is one of the unmentioned state officials.
“As I have consistently said, we understood that Sam Randazzo had worked for manufacturing companies, energy companies, and consumers, and that he had done work for First Energy. Sam Randazzo was a well-known subject-matter expert in energy issues,” the governor said in a statement. “If, as stated in the court documents, Sam Randazzo committed acts to improperly benefit First Energy, his motives were not known by me or my staff.”
Haley Carducci, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, didn’t specifically answer whether Husted is one of the two state officials.
“The Lt. Governor has not been contacted by any federal law enforcement officials regarding this case, so we have no reason to believe that he is mentioned in this document,” said Husted spokeswoman Haley Carducci.
Along with Randazzo’s help on the regulatory side, the agreement states that he helped craft and review language of House Bill 6 including a “decoupling” provision, which created a ratepayer backed guarantee of FirstEnergy’s revenues at 2018 levels, a good year for the company. The bill also bailed out two nuclear plants owned by a former FirstEnergy subsidiary; bailed out two coal plants owned by a spread of different utility companies; and gutted the state’s renewable energy and efficiency standards.
Randazzo has deep ties to the fossil fuel energy industry. He worked as a lobbyist and lawyer for the Industrial Energy users Ohio, which represents interests of energy-intensive manufacturing and commercial business before the PUCO.
As a donor, he contributed more than $282,000 to state candidates over 23 years, according to an analysis from the National Institute on Money and Politics. More than $194,000 went to Republicans, $36,000 to Democrats, and $48,000 to candidates of unspecified parties.
When his name appeared on a short list of potential candidates for DeWine to choose, a spread of environmental groups wrote a letter outlining “serious concern” for Randazzo’s “extreme bias” against clean energy.
“Mr. Sam Randazzo has worked earnestly to dismantle Ohio’s energy efficiency resource standard and renewable portfolio standard (RPS) since 2012 via multiple pieces of legislation,” they wrote. “He was supportive of the legislation that froze Ohio’s standards for two years, worked behind the scenes with the study committee that issued a faulty report allegedly assessing the costs and benefits of the RPS and EERS, and even continued to push the repeal and weakening of these standards after Governor Kasich’s veto of a bill that would have essentially eliminated the standards.”
The Ohio Consumers Counsel, a state agency that represents residential ratepayers before PUCO, issued a statement after news broke of the filing.
“The public got some justice today regarding the Ohio House Bill 6 scandal and FirstEnergy,” said agency director Bruce Weston. “But justice is also a longer road that requires state reforms to curb the utilities’ political influence that is costing Ohioans money on their utility bills.”
Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus, said the information about Randazzo places the scandal right on DeWine’s doorstep.
“This, combined with the significant money FirstEnergy gave to his campaign makes it clear that Governor DeWine needs to come clean to the people of Ohio about his role in this historic scandal,” he said.
Catherine Turcer, director of Common Cause Ohio, which frequently advocates for anti-corruption and campaign finance reform legislation, said the entire episode highlights that current law allows some political entities to spend enormous sums of money without ever disclosing the source.
“Clearly, Ohio legislators also need to create greater transparency so that voters can ‘follow the money’ and determine who is funding political spending by all entities including nonprofits. It’s not yet too late for us to pass new laws that will shine a light on ‘dark money,’” she said. “However, our state legislative leaders need to act with urgency and make transparency and accountability a top priority — or Ohioans will undoubtedly face yet another embarrassing scandal.”
Shortly after HB 6 passed, a FirstEnergy executive texted Randazzo, according to prosecutors. Attached was an edited image of Randazzo’s face atop Mount Rushmore, with FirstEnergy executives and lobbyists alongside him on the iconic monument.
“HB 6 F(***) ANYBODY WHO AINT US,” the executive wrote.