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Ohio Gov. DeWine said he didn’t know of millions in FirstEnergy support. Is it plausible?

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s claim to not know about the millions an Akron utility spent supporting his 2018 campaign for governor simply isn’t credible, an Ohio political scientist said in a recent interview. A spokesperson for DeWine pushed back. FirstEnergy provided that support, then spent more than $60 million to pass and protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer-financed […]

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s claim to not know about the millions an Akron utility spent supporting his 2018 campaign for governor simply isn’t credible, an Ohio political scientist said in a recent interview. A spokesperson for DeWine pushed back.

FirstEnergy provided that support, then spent more than $60 million to pass and protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer-financed bailout that mostly benefited the utility. In 2019, DeWine signed the law within hours of its passage. 

But now that two GOP officials are in federal prison as part of the scandal and two others involved in the scheme have died by suicide, DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted are downplaying what they knew about FirstEnergy’s support for their campaigns. They’re also downplaying connections between their administration and the utility.

They say they supported the unpopular bailout because they thought it was good public policy to protect nuclear generation in Ohio.

However, a batch of records turned over in response to a records request by a group of news organizations — including Floodlight, the Energy News Network, the USA Today Network and the Capital Journal — are showing that the support they’ve gotten from FirstEnergy is greater than previously known.

Big, dark money

The company made donations totaling $1 million to 501(c)(4) dark money groups supporting Husted in 2018 before he dropped his gubernatorial bid and joined the DeWine ticket. The records also reveal that the company gave as much as $2.5 million to dark money groups supporting DeWine the same year.

Husted’s office wouldn’t say whether the lieutenant governor knew about the contributions at the time they were made. DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney last week denied that DeWine knew about the trove of newly revealed FirstEnergy contributions

University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven said there’s a “zero-percent chance” that DeWine’s claim is true. He explained that in 2018, there was a nationwide backlash against the presidency of Donald Trump and support for Democrats was surging. That meant a “razor-wire thin” election for DeWine, a Republican running in a state Trump carried by eight points two years earlier, Niven said.

DeWine “was running in an election cycle when the tide was going against his party,” Niven said. “The notion that he was just this fumbling, naive grandpa who has no idea about seven-figure flows (supporting) his campaign is perhaps the single most far-fetched thing he’s ever said.”

There’s also the fact that it’s questionable for a company to make such a huge expenditure and not make sure the public official benefiting from it knew about it That seems especially true of FirstEnergy, which later admitted to paying an outright bribe of $4.3 million to Sam Randazzo just before DeWine nominated him to regulate the company and other Ohio utilities.

A state indictment of Randazzo and two former FirstEnergy executives says that on Dec. 18, 2018, the executives had dinner with Gov.-elect DeWine and Lt. Gov.-elect Husted and went from there to Randazzo’s condo to arrange the bribe. Randazzo, who was accused of helping to draft and lobby for the corrupt bailout, died by suicide earlier this month.

Return on investment

Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary, was asked last week why FirstEnergy would spend millions supporting his boss and not make sure DeWine knew about it. Tierney cited rules prohibiting dark-money groups from coordinating their activities with campaigns. 

“Regarding your question regarding why donors to independent expenditures might not engage candidates directly on the independent expenditures, my guess is that this goes back to the fact that it is illegal for candidates to coordinate with 501 (c)(4) independent expenditure groups,” Tierney said in an email. “I would guess that entities that frequently make such donations are aware of those legal restrictions. I don’t believe you were trying to accuse the Governor of illegal conduct, as he follows the law, but I would vociferously push back on any such innuendo as there is no basis for it.”

However, merely informing a candidate of a contribution to an independent group doesn’t seem sufficient to meet the state’s definition of “coordination.” That applies to communications “made pursuant to any arrangement, coordination, or direction by the candidate, the candidate’s campaign committee, or the candidate’s agent… ” the Ohio Revised Code says.

Some special interests have made pious claims that they spend millions supporting candidates not to buy influence, but because they wish to support good governance. Niven, the political scientist, said such a claim would be laughable in the context of FirstEnergy and Ohio’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

“This is all about return on investment,” said. “This isn’t even primarily about affecting the outcome of the election, it’s about affecting the behavior of the elected.”

And, Niven said, given that FirstEnergy’s expenditures in 2018 and 2019 won it a billion-dollar bailout, “The return on investment on this thing is spectacular.”

Who benefits?

In an email, Tierney questioned press coverage implying that groups supporting DeWine received all of the $2.5 million in dark money FirstEnergy put up in 2018. The donations were made to a dark money group affiliated with the Republican Governors Association, but only $500,000 was specifically labeled “DeWine.”

“… I am sure Ohio political reporters are laser-focused on Ohio matters, I would point out that FirstEnergy operates in seven states,” Tierney said. “Some of those states have Republican governors, others have had recent Republican governors, and even more have had competitive gubernatorial elections recently as well.”

However, of those states, only four — Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland — had gubernatorial elections in 2018. And of those, Ohio’s was by far the closest and thus the most likely to be affected by big expenditures. It’s also the the state that had two nuclear plants that FirstEnergy was desperate to bail out.

DeWine beat Democrat Richard Corday by 3.7 percentage points. The next-closest race was in Maryland, where Republican Larry Hogan beat Democrat Ben Jealous by 12 points — or more than triple the margin in the Ohio race.

In addition, among the documents obtained by the news organizations are messages that demonstrate FirstEnergy’s interest in plowing dark money into Ohio’s 2018 gubernatorial election. One, from FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling, attempted to ease worries over the company’s massive expenditures through the Republican Governors Association to help DeWine and Husted.

“Theoretically, DeWine/Husted could have a balance of $10M in their campaign account and the RGA could spend $40M in support of DeWine in Ohio,” Dowling said in an email first reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer. “My point is that comparing the size of a contribution to the RGA to what the DeWine campaign has raised or what the DeWine Campaign’s current balance is can be done, but I’m not sure is logical.”

Other claims

In addition to pleading ignorance of FirstEnergy’s dark money, the governor and his staff haven’t explained what senior members of his administration who had close connections to the company knew about about a vital part of the scandal — the relationship between FirstEnergy and the man DeWine picked to regulate it.

The governor and his staff have claimed that connections between Randazzo and FirstEnergy were common knowledge when DeWine took office in 2019. However, there’s little evidence to support the claim

Meanwhile, Randazzo’s state indictment says Randazzo and FirstEnergy had a long, secret partnership that paid Randazzo millions even before his $4.3 million payoff in 2019. It also lays out evidence that both parties were anxious to keep it hidden. 

Throughout the scandal, DeWine and his staff have staunchly maintained that the governor supported the FirstEnergy bailout not out of any ulterior motive, but because he thought it was good public policy. To support that, Tierney last week pointed to the fact that Cordray, DeWine’s Democratic challenger, also supported keeping FirstEnergy’s nuclear plants open.

But there’s some important context. FirstEnergy gave dark money to support DeWine and oppose Cordray. In addition, DeWine’s chief of stafflegislative-affairs director and his choice to regulate the industry all had lucrative financial connections to the company either contemporaneously or in the recent past.

“It’s just laughable,” Niven said. “They find themselves in the literal center of the biggest corporate-political swindle in the state’s history and their answer is, ‘Well anybody would have done this.’”


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