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Fired FirstEnergy execs indicted in $60 million Ohio bribery scheme; regulator faces new charges

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Two fired FirstEnergy Corp. executives were indicted Monday in the long-running investigation into a $60 million bribery scheme in Ohio that has already resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for a former state House speaker.

Former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and former FirstEnergy Services Corp. Senior Vice President Michael Dowling were charged in relation to their alleged roles in the massive corruption case, Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced in an online news conference.

“Their actions over a period of years have undermined confidence in state governments, the rule of law, and very nearly made them even richer men than they already are,” Yost said of Jones and Dowling, who are facing criminal charges for the first time since the scandal began. “There can be no justice without holding the check writers and the masterminds accountable.”

Jones and Dowling were fired in October 2020 for violating company policies and code of conduct, and — given their numerous mentions in earlier indictments and court proceedings — the lack of indictments had been notable as a 5-year statute of limitations nears.

Both pushed back forcefully Monday, denying any wrongdoing and accusing Yost of false assertions.

“For more than three years, a false and unfair narrative has surrounded Chuck Jones and other current and former employees of FirstEnergy, the company to which Mr. Jones devoted his entire 42-year career. That ends today,” his attorney Carole Rendon said in a statement. “Mr. Jones did not violate the law. He did not bribe anyone. He acted in the best interests of FirstEnergy’s customers as well as its employees and investors, and never betrayed their trust.”

Yost said a grand jury in Summit County, home to Akron, indicted Jones and Dowling on Friday and that the two men promised to turn themselves in Monday to the Summit County Jail but then did not. Jones said through his attorney that he was in Akron when the comment was made, awaiting instructions from the court as to how to proceed. Both he and Dowling were scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

Monday’s announcement also included additional charges against Sam Randazzo, former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, who is already facing 11 counts of charges centered around allegations he accepted bribes from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. in exchange for regulatory favors.

Jones, Dowling and Randazzo face a combined 27 new felony counts announced by Yost, including bribery, theft, engaging in corrupt activity, tampering with records and money laundering.

Randazzo resigned in November 2020 after FBI agents searched his Columbus townhome and FirstEnergy revealed in security filings that it had paid him $4.3 million for his future help at the commission a month before Republican Gov. Mike DeWine nominated him as Ohio’s top utility regulator. The indictment names two businesses he led: Industrial Energy Users-Ohio, and Sustainability Funding Alliance of Ohio, the entity through which the $4.3 million payment was made.

Dowling disputed Yost’s allegations that the payment represented any kind of a bribe, vowing to prove his innocence at trial.

He said the sum represented the final annual installment from a 2015 settlement agreement between FirstEnergy and IEU-Ohio, a trade association of large commercial energy users represented by Randazzo, and that the decision to make those payments through SFA was made by FirstEnergy’s legal and rates departments, not by Dowling himself.

“The allegations of this indictment are completely false and are not supported by any credible evidence whatsoever,” John McCaffrey, one of his lawyers, said in a statement. “It is shocking that a public prosecutor’s office would return an irresponsible indictment and have no evidence to support the charges in the indictment.”

Monday’s indictments mark the latest development in what has been labeled the largest corruption case in Ohio history.

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was sentenced in June to 20 years in prison for his role in orchestrating the scheme, and lobbyist Matt Borges, a former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, was sentenced to five years.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Cincinnati indicted three others on racketeering charges in July 2020. Lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Jeffrey Longstreth, a top Householder political strategist, pleaded guilty in October 2020 and await sentencing. The third person arrested, statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark, pleaded not guilty before dying by suicide in March 2021. The dark money group used to funnel FirstEnergy money, Generation Now, also pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in February 2021.

All were accused of using the $60 million in secretly funded FirstEnergy cash to get Householder’s chosen Republican candidates elected to the House in 2018 and then to help him get elected speaker in January 2019. The money was then used to win passage of the tainted energy bill, House Bill 6, and to conduct what authorities have said was a $38 million dirty-tricks campaign to prevent a repeal referendum from reaching the ballot.

Yost asked a judge in Columbus to add Jones, Dowling and Randazzo to a state-level lawsuit by his office against FirstEnergy in July 2021.

“This indictment is about more than one piece of legislation,” Yost said Monday. “It is about the hostile capture of a significant portion of Ohio’s state government by deception, betrayal and dishonesty.”

An 81-page FBI criminal complaint from July 2020 detailed how executives of Akron-based FirstEnergy interacted with Householder and others indicted in the scheme, as well as identifying 84 phone contacts between Jones and the former speaker and 14 phone contacts between Dowling and Householder.

FirstEnergy admitted to its role in the bribery scheme as part of a July 2021 deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The company agreed to pay $230 million in penalties and to accomplish a long list of reforms within three years in order to avoid being criminally prosecuted on a federal conspiracy charge.

A statement of facts signed by current FirstEnergy CEO and President Steven Strah lays out in detail the involvement of Jones, Dowling, Randazzo and others in the bribery scheme. Randazzo’s attorneys have called claims contained in the document mere “hearsay” designed to keep the energy giant out of legal hot water.

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Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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