By David C. DeWitt
Ohio Capital Journal

https://ohiocapitaljournal.com/

COMMENTARY – Nothing to see here. Remain calm. All is well. No big deal. Everybody knew.

That appears to be Gov. Mike DeWine’s reaction to the public finding out he appointed a FirstEnergy consultant to regulate utilities in Ohio the company now admits paying $4.3 million to do their bidding.

As the fallout from the $61 million House Bill 6 political bribery scandal continues, DeWine’s inner circle is increasingly becoming ensnared in the scheme that awarded the energy company a $1.3 billion ratepayer-funded bailout signed by DeWine.

FirstEnergy said in a court filing last week that it paid Sam Randazzo $22 million in consulting fees in the decade leading up to his appointment by DeWine as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, including the $4.3 million payment shortly before his appointment to hand down rulings favorable to the company.

Does that sound bad to you? It sounds pretty bad to me. It sounds like a utility company was paying off its regulator and getting sweetheart treatment from public officials at the expense of its customers. This is called regulatory capture.

It apparently doesn’t sound bad to DeWine, who had this to say: “He did work for them and he was paid for that. We knew that, everybody knew that. So there’s no new information.”

The governor didn’t even pretend to be outraged. Would you be outraged if the person you appointed to protect the public’s interest instead took money from the industry he was appointed to regulate and did them favors at the public’s expense? I would.

DeWine’s former Chief of Staff Laurel Dawson never listed FirstEnergy as a lobbying client, but her husband Mike Dawson lobbied for FirstEnergy from 2011 to 2013 and consulted for them at least as recently as 2020. We found out this week that Laurel Dawson, who now serves as counselor to the governor, learned of the $4.3 million FirstEnergy payment to Randazzo in October 2020, but apparently didn’t tell the governor about it until the FBI was raiding Randazzo’s home that November. Randazzo resigned after the raid.

Would you be upset if your chief of staff knew your appointment to regulate utility companies had been bought by a utility company and decided not to tell you until the FBI was raiding his home? I would. DeWine doesn’t seem to mind.

What if this same chief of staff as well as your lieutenant governor — Jon Husted — helped recruit this appointment in the first place, and put your administration in this compromised position? Would you be upset? I would. DeWine apparently isn’t.

What of DeWine’s legislative affairs director Dan McCarthy? McCarthy worked previously as a FirstEnergy lobbyist and founded a dark money group called Partners for Progress that FirstEnergy has admitted funneling money through, including to another dark money group called Generation Now allegedly controlled by indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder. Generation Now has pleaded guilty in the bribery scandal.

FirstEnergy’s deferred prosecution agreement said, “Although Partners for Progress appeared to be an independent 501(c)(4) on paper, in reality, it was controlled in part by certain former FirstEnergy Corp. executives, who funded it and directed its payments to entities associated with public officials.”

Millions would flow through Partners for Progress while McCarthy was its president and tens of millions more would later run through it and into the furious effort to pass the bailout after McCarthy resigned to become DeWine’s legislative affairs director. The prosecution agreement also appears to refer to McCarthy as “Official Aide 1” as he worked on DeWine’s behalf to help pass the bailout that DeWine would sign later that year. McCarthy hasn’t been charged and he denied wrongdoing last summer.

What’s DeWine think? He said last week McCarthy is someone with “a great deal of integrity.”

“There is absolutely no indication that Dan McCarthy was doing anything illegal or anything wrong,” DeWine said.

Once again, no sign of outrage from DeWine. Would you be outraged if one of your aides allowed a former lobbying client to control a dark money group he founded to direct political bribes in order to secure a $1.3 billion bailout at the expense of everyday Ohioans? I would. It appears DeWine is not.

What if you had a whole cadre of long-time political staff and allies with deep ties to FirstEnergy lobbying to pass this bailout that is now at the center of what prosecutors are calling Ohio’s biggest political bribery scandal in history?

As a 40-year public figure looking to secure his legacy at the end of his career, would you feel a bit betrayed that so many people ostensibly close to you would recklessly put your legacy at such peril? I would. DeWine gives no indication he does.

Now why would that be? Is it because FirstEnergy donated more than $1 million to nonprofit groups and political campaigns since 2017 to help elect DeWine? Does it have something to do with a dinner prior to Randazzo’s appointment that DeWine claims he doesn’t remember the details of featuring DeWine, Husted, and FirstEnergy’s now-former CEO Chuck Jones and Senior Vice President Mike Dowling?

Or maybe, like DeWine says, he’s just always innocently supported nuclear energy because he thinks it’s good policy, and so that must be why he signed the vastly complex House Bill 6 the same day it hit his desk when he regularly takes days or weeks to sign even the most mundane and uncomplicated legislation.

Either that, or our governor has become so entrenched in and accustomed to the arrogant culture of corruption in Ohio politics that he’s oblivious to it.

Nothing to see here. Remain calm. All is well. Everybody knew. But everybody is full of integrity, and nobody did anything wrong.

David C. DeWitt is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years' experience covering Ohio politics and policy.