Among its first known stops: Partners for Progress, an upbeat-sounding nonprofit started by a then-FirstEnergy lobbyist who now works for Gov. Mike DeWine.
The FBI called Partners for Progress an “Energy Pass-Through” allegedly used to funnel millions to Generation Now, another nonprofit that federal officials said was illegally controlled by former House Speaker Larry Householder.
Partners for Progress also sent money to other groups. One helped DeWine win the race for governor and another tried to help the governor’s daughter win a race for county prosecutor. DeWine’s office admitted that he asked FirstEnergy to help his daughter, noting that the ask was legal.
And it sent more money to a Cleveland group that lobbied against Cleveland Public Power, the city-owned utility that has long competed with FirstEnergy and its predecessors.
Both Partners for Progress and Generation Now are organized as 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofits, which means they cannot spend more than half of expenses on political causes nor work closely with candidates and their campaigns. Such groups are called “dark money” entities because they don’t have to disclose their donors.
We only know about this trail of “dark money” because of the FBI.
Last July, federal agents charged Householder, Generation Now and four others as part of an ongoing racketeering investigation centering on House Bill 6, the $1 billion-plus ratepayer bailout of two Ohio nuclear power plants then owned by FirstEnergy Solutions that Householder helped push through – and DeWine signed into law.
It should not take FBI wiretaps and subpoenas to be able to follow the money.
At the press conference to announce Householder’s arrest, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers was asked if the bribery scheme could have occurred if Generation Now had been required by law to disclose its donations. “I don’t see how it possibly could have,” he responded.
Common Cause Ohio responded to the indictments and Statehouse inaction by hosting forums with experts to craft proposed reforms. Every expert called for Ohio to require disclosure of dark money.
The bribery scandal inspired some legislative reforms, but none made it out of committee.
While they would have been good first steps, meaningful reforms must do the following:
· Require that the original sources of funding be disclosed. Absent this requirement, wealthy special interests will try and avoid disclosure by funneling the money through pop-up shell groups.
· Give Ohioans access to the donor information as they are watching TV or reading political advertisements by requiring that the names of the biggest donors be listed on the ads.
· Prohibit fundraising for independent expenditures from candidates their staff and family. Had this been the law, DeWine would not have been legally allowed to ask FirstEnergy to send money to the entity helping his daughter.
Democracy experts also called for Ohio to force Public Utilities Commission of Ohio applicants to disclose all sources of income, to make certain they are free from conflicts of interest – especially ones involving the utilities they regulate.
On Dec. 3, 2020, Common Cause asked existing PUCO members to voluntarily disclose all sources of income from utilities, their lobbyists, consultants, and lawyers. Not a single member responded.
Gov. DeWine and PUCO members also failed to respond to a letter from a bipartisan trio of former commissioners. Their Dec. 21, 2020, letter outlined steps the regulatory panel should make to restore the public trust.
The letter followed the departure of Sam Randazzo as PUCO chairman. He resigned after the FBI raided his condo and after FirstEnergy disclosed it paid $4 million to an unnamed person who subsequently was hired by the state to regulate utilities.
This is not FirstEnergy’s first bailout nor first pay-to-play scandal. Ohio needs to make it the utility’s last scandal by shining a light on dark money and adding conflict-free members to the PUCO.
Catherine Turcer is the executive director of Common Cause Ohio. She was previously the director of Ohio Citizen Action’s Money in Politics Project and has authored a number of studies “following the money.”