The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Months after the state government granted hundreds of millions in subsidies to FirstEnergy Corp., the company disconnected the electric service of an Ohio man relying on supplemental oxygen.
The customer, David, called the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and told an intake representative that after he got home from a doctor’s appointment he discovered his power had been cut off due to nonpayment.
“He said that he is on oxygen and needed electricity,” said Robert Fadley, the director of the PUCO’s service monitoring and enforcement department in an email to the agency’s chief.
“Our representative noted that it was clear from talking to him that he was struggling to breathe.”
His disconnection made David one of the roughly 54,000 Ohio customers FirstEnergy cut off from electric service between June 2019 and May 2020, regulatory records show.
The email was included among the thousands the PUCO provided in response to two subpoenas from the U.S. Department of Justice in connection to criminal investigations regarding FirstEnergy’s lobbying practices. The subpoenas call for records from Sam Randazzo, the former PUCO chairman accused of taking a bribe from the company. The Ohio Capital Journal requested the records and later sued the PUCO to force their release.
The OCJ is not identifying the customer by surname or hometown to protect the privacy of his health and finances. His wife confirmed the events laid out in the emails but declined an interview and asked not to be involved.
To be reconnected, his payment was due by 12:30 p.m., Oct. 17, 2019. David was unable to pay until about 3:50 p.m., according to Fadley’s email. However, FirstEnergy wouldn’t commit to sending someone out for a reconnection that evening and would only say it would check to see if there was still a technician working in the area.
By the next day, the PUCO contacted the company again. Its staff indicated they were “planning to do it sometime today.” When the PUCO couldn’t get ahold of David, its staff requested that local authorities perform a wellness check.
Meanwhile, a PUCO staffer hit trouble trying to get FirstEnergy’s staff on the phone. One confirmed David was on a reconnect list but couldn’t give any timeline. He mentioned David hadn’t submitted a “medical certification” — utilities offer more lenient disconnection policies to customers who submit medical records to certify illnesses.
According to Fadley, FirstEnergy staff were “lax” in tone on the subject. Soon enough, then-chairman Randazzo asked for the customer’s service address. Fadley first emailed Randazzo at 11:30 a.m. Randazzo replied that he contacted the company at about 1 p.m. David’s electric service was resumed at 1:28 p.m.
“Fortunately, [David] is safe this morning but this could have ended in tragedy,” Fadley wrote.
FirstEnergy declined to comment on this story, citing its interest protecting customers’ privacy. However, the company issued a lengthy statement to explain its disconnection policies, including for those with severe health conditions.
Millions from ratepayers
Not long before the company shut off David’s power, Ohio’s legislative, regulatory and judicial arms moved in manners worth hundreds of millions to FirstEnergy.
In July 2019, lawmakers passed House Bill 6. The legislation provided ratepayer-funded subsidies to two nuclear plants owned at the time by a FirstEnergy subsidiary. It also included a decoupling provision that then CEO-Charles Jones said would essentially “recession proof” a large chunk of the company. The law was estimated to provide about $1.3 billion to the company over a decade.
That law, now partially repealed, is now the subject of a criminal investigation into former House Speaker Larry Householder. FirstEnergy entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the federal government, opting to pay a $230 million penalty to avert a charge of wire fraud. Householder has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
In a statement of facts paired with the agreement, FirstEnergy admitted to bribing both Householder and Randazzo. The company claims it paid Randazzo $4.3 million to an entity Randazzo controlled just before he was appointed. The payments were made in exchange for “official action,” the company said. Randazzo has not been charged with a crime and has maintained his innocence.
Federal prosecutors subpoenaed the PUCO seeking records related to other state actions controlling how much FirstEnergy could charge its customers.
They sought records regarding a charge the PUCO allowed the company to pass onto customers called a “distribution modernization rider” starting in 2017. Despite its name, a recent audit could find no evidence to conclude that any of the $458 million the company charged its customers went toward modernizing the distribution grid.
A 2019 Supreme Court ruling blocked FirstEnergy from collecting the remaining millions from the rider. However, a ruling from the PUCO (that predated Randazzo) prevented the court from ordering a refund.
Prosecutors also sought records to an amendment included in the state’s 2019-2020 budget that allowed FirstEnergy to more liberally calculate whether its charges to customers are “significantly excessive” under state law. The OCJ has previously reported on texts indicating Randazzo lobbied to get the amendment into the budget.
The precise value of the change is tricky to pin down but according to a memo from the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, which opposed the amendment, it could prevent tens of millions in customer refunds.
FirstEnergy cut off 73,700 Ohio customers for nonpayment between June 2021 and May 2022, according to regulatory disclosures from the company.
It cut off nearly 40,000 the year prior — when regulators briefly paused disconnections during the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
The emails obtained by the OCJ indicate Randazzo lobbied against any outright moratorium on power shutoffs, despite the pandemic and related economic crisis.
In April 2020, the records indicate Randazzo joined in a conference call with the heads of several of Ohio’s largest, investor-owned utilities in the state like American Electric Power, AES, Duke Energy and others. The subject of the call included disconnections.
In May, he signed a letter addressed to Ohio’s congressional delegation urging them to reject any form of a nationwide policy or law “regarding the timing, terms or conditions applicable to discontinuation of utility service due to non-payment during the current public health emergency.”
Conversely, he wrote staff around the same time that their focus should be on mitigating “the cash flow problems that are going to be landing on suppliers and customers as a result of a fundamental collapse of the economy.”