by J.D. Davidson
Ohio paused its investigation into FirstEnergy and House Bill 6 after federal prosecutors said continuing could interfere with their ongoing criminal investigation.
Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairwoman Jenifer French, a former judge, said she understood how the four PUCO investigations into FirstEnergy and the passage of House Bill 6 could create issues for the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
“As a former judge, I presided over both criminal and civil cases, and I am sensitive to the very real concerns of the Department of Justice regarding possible interference with their ongoing criminal investigation,” French said in a news release.
Last week, according to the PUCO, U.S. attorneys asked the commission to put its investigations on hold for six months based on a concern that ongoing discovery in the four investigations could interfere with or impede the federal investigation in what federal prosecutors have called the largest bribery and corruption scandal in Ohio history.
“Throughout our four investigations, the Commission has sought to balance two principles: one, the Commission will follow the facts wherever they lead; and two, it is of the utmost importance that the Commission’s investigations do not interfere with the DOJ’s ongoing criminal investigation, or the parallel civil action instituted by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost,” PUCO said in an entry on its website.
As previously reported by The Center Square, FirstEnergy agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in their investigation, admitting it conspired with public officials, others and entities to pay millions of dollars to public officials in exchange for specific official action to help FirstEnergy.
It also admitted it paid millions to an elected state public official through the official’s alleged nonprofit in return for the official pursuing nuclear legislation to FirstEnergy’s benefit.
Former Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder faces federal bribery and racketeering charges in the $60 million scandal that led to the passage of House Bill 6 and a billion-dollar bailout of the state’s nuclear plants.
Householder, who was expelled from the Ohio House, has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence.
FirstEnergy faces charges of conspiring to commit honest services wire fraud, but those charges could be dropped if it continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
Householder, along with four co-conspirators, were charged a year ago. Three of the six entities have pleaded guilty.
Also charged were former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, lobbyist Neil Clark, the Oxley Group co-founder Juan Cespedes and strategist John Longstreth.
The U.S. attorney’s office said the conspiracy involves more than $60 million paid to a 501(c)(4) entity to pass and uphold a billion-dollar nuclear plant bailout.
The charging documents said the group conspired to launder millions of dollars in bribes through the entity Generation Now. Court documents show the enterprise received millions of dollars in exchange for Householder and the group’s help in passing House Bill 6, which saved two Ohio nuclear power plants from closing.
Longstreth admitted in his plea to organizing Generation Now for Householder, knowing it would be used to receive bribe money to further Householder’s bid for speaker of the House. Longstreth managed Generation Now bank accounts, and he said he concealed the energy company was the source of the funding.
Cespedes admitted he orchestrated payments to Generation Now, and he knew the payments were meant to help Householder politically in return for help in passing HB 6.
HB 6 created a new Ohio Clean Air Program to support nuclear energy plants and some solar power facilities. Electricity consumers were to fund the program with the surcharge that ran through 2027.
The fee, which was scheduled to begin Jan. 1, was stopped by the Ohio Supreme Court in late December 2021. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost also reached a deal with FirstEnergy to stop what would have been a $120 million windfall for the company this year based on another part of HB 6.
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An Ohio native, J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher. Davidson is a regional editor for The Center Square.
Photo “FirstEnergy Building” by DangApricot. CC BY-SA 3.0.