Texts detail how Ohio regulator gave FirstEnergy inside help

Business

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Newly surfaced texts between FirstEnergy Corp. executives detail a series of favors delivered to the company by Ohio’s top utility regulator, a man under scrutiny in an ongoing federal corruption probe.

Akron-based FirstEnergy had a friend on the inside in early 2020: Sam Randazzo, chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Randazzo resigned last Novemberafter an FBI search of his home and revelations that top FirstEnergy executives had approved paying him $4.3 million, weeks before his appointment as Ohio’s top utility regulator in 2019.

The March 2020 texts between the two executives — who have since been fired — represent a new peek into the specifics of what Randazzo did on the company’s behalf.

CEO Chuck Jones and senior vice president Dennis Chack wrote that Randazzo’s help included overruling utilities commission staff and commissioners on a revenue guarantee in a now-tainted 2019 energy bill.

Randazzo also helped with “burning” an updated audit report on FirstEnergy charging customers $456 million — charges later deemed improper by the state Supreme Court. The customer charges were intended for grid modernization, but instead, FirstEnergy used the money to create a lending pool that its subsidiary electric companies, including those outside Ohio, could draw from.

“He (Randazzo) will get it done for us but cannot just jettison all process,” Jones texted Chack, adding that Randazzo’s help had led to “a lot of talk going on in the halls of PUCO about does he work there or for us?”

About five months later, federal authorities accused FirstEnergy of secretly funding an elaborate $60 million bribery scheme to elect a new Ohio House speaker. The company hoped the new speaker would pass legislation bailing out two nuclear plants operated at the time by a wholly-owned FirstEnergy subsidiary, and then quash a ballot effort to repeal the law.

The text exchange was obtained the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston in a subpoena issued to the utilities commission for investigative documents concerning FirstEnergy and the bribery scandal.

“We are pursuing justice for FirstEnergy consumers at the PUCO, where there has not been enough of it,” Weston said in a statement Thursday.

FirstEnergy signed a deferred prosecution agreement in July that called for the company to pay $230 million in penalties and abide by a long list of reform measures to avoid criminal charges. The company, in a statement attached to the agreement, described its role in the bribery scheme and how the company benefited from Randazzo’s help.

Randazzo has not been criminally charged and has denied wrongdoing. A message seeking comment from his attorney was not immediately returned.

Ties between passage of the nuclear bailout bill and FirstEnergy’s bribery efforts were first laid bare in July 2020, when federal authorities arrested then-House Speaker Larry Householderand four others on conspiracy charges. Householder has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

FirstEnergy fired Jones, Chack and senior vice president Michael Dowling in October 2020 for violating the company’s policies and code of conduct. None have been criminally charged. Jones has said he did nothing wrong. A spokesperson for Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

FirstEnergy spokesperson Jennifer Young declined comment on the text messages.

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Gillispie reported from Cleveland.

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This story has been corrected to show FirstEnergy’s spokesperson is Jennifer Young, not Jennifer Thornton.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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