FirstEnergy handed out $1M in campaign cash before bailout vote
- Jul 29, 2019 11:27 am GMT
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There's nothing wayward about it - the donations are legal and disclosed - but you could safely say FirstEnergy Corp. realized a good return on its investment in Ohio politicians.
The Akron-based utility and its employees gave nearly $1 million to legislators, other officeholders, candidates and political parties prior to winning narrow passage of the bill granting FirstEnergy Solutions around $1 billion over seven years to underwrite the pair of Lake Erie nuclear power plants it threatened to close.
The controversial residential ratepayer-paid bailout - 85 cents a month from 2021 though 2027 - came amid a flood of campaign cash seldom seen in Ohio politics. It included $9.5 million in TV ads, largely from a dark-money group backing FirstEnergy, which supported salvaging its bankrupt spinoff FirstEnergy Solutions.
FirstEnergy Corp. Political Action Committee and the utility's 15,000 employees, mainly through payroll deductions, have graced lawmakers and other political interests with $956,508 in contributions since 2017, with about 70% going to the ruling Republicans who dominate state government.
The numbers come from a Dispatch analysis and vetting of data largely compiled by the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog group that promotes clean, renewable energy, the use of which was downgraded in House Bill 6.
Throw in contributions from the PACs of three other Ohio utilities that are part of a consortium that owns two money-losing coal-fired power plants - which were subsidized by House Bill 6's extension of a monthly consumer fee through 2030 - and the total of political largess rises to $1.65 million since 2017.
FirstEnergy officials refused to answer questions about the contributions, with a spokesman only saying,"FirstEnergy Corp. makes and discloses all campaign contributions in accordance with applicable state and federal laws."
With FirstEnergy backing a dozen of his preferred candidates with $153,000 in the 2018 primary to bolster his ultimate success in winning the House rostrum, Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, led the charge in support of House Bill 6.
Householder, who with a son flew to President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural aboard a FirstEnergy corporate jet (later paying a bill for the flight), personally reaped $25,416 in donations from FirstEnergy while the House GOP caucus received another $18,798 since 2017.
It paid to be allied with Householder. The power company donated $163,382 to 35 of the 98 other House members, with the 21 lawmakers who voted both for Householder for speaker and in favor of House Bill 6 pocketing the majority at $125,474 - an average of $5,975 each.
Of the other House members voting in favor of the legislation May 29 in its first 53-43 vote, 27 had supported former Speaker Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, for re-election. Fourteen received $37,908 in contributions, an average of $2,708 from FirstEnergy. Smith himself received $14,000.
Fourth-term Rep. Anthony DeVitis, R-Green, (in FirstEnergy's home county of Summit) received the most in political gifts with $33,916, including a $7,500 donation six days before the House vote. All told, FirstEnergy gave $33,000 to 34 lawmakers in the six weeks before the initial House vote.
Five other key House members, all but one a primary sponsor of House Bill 6 or a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, received five-figure donations ranging from $11,500 to $14,208.
"There is no connection between campaign contributions and legislative activity," said House Republican spokeswoman Gail Crawley. "House Bill 6 was the result of extensive public hearings in both the House and Senate. It will cut mandates and save ratepayers $1.3 billion while preserving Ohio jobs and protecting Ohio's environment."
FirstEnergy spent almost 50% less on donations to the smaller Senate, led by President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, who received $8,300 for his campaign and $5,000 for his GOP caucus.
Twenty-two of the 32 other senators, led by Sen. Kristina Roeger, R-Hudson, with $25,708, landed $98,708 in donations for an average of $5,195.
"Campaign contributions have nothing to do with policy outcomes in the Senate," said John Fortney, spokesman for the Senate Republicans.
An Energy and Natural Resources Committee member, Sen. Sandra Williams, of Cleveland, received the most money among Democrats in either chamber - $10,000.
First-year Republican Gov. Mike DeWine lobbied for the legislation and signed the bill within a few hours of it landing on his desk last week. His campaign received $25,202 in FirstEnergy donations, plus $12,700 in food and beverages donated by utility president and CEO Chuck Jones for a fundraiser. First Energy also kicked in $10,000 to the governor's inaugural and transition fund.
FirstEnergy, which with FirstEnergy Solutions employs nearly two dozen lobbyists in Columbus, did not overlook Ohio's political parties, either. The state GOP picked up $124,298, while the Democratic Party landed $42,500.
Donations by the PACs of the three utilities with a stake in the coal plant bailout part of House Bill 6 - American Electric Power, Duke Energy and Dayton Power & Light - totaled another $700,000 atop FirstEnergy's near $1 million.
"While it's unfortunately typical for investor-owned utilities to spend money to influence politicians, the amount of money that FirstEnergy Solutions, AEP and allied dark-money groups spent to buy support from legislators for their coal and nuclear bailout has been astronomical," said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute.
Householder's total haul from all four power companies totaled $67,416 for himself and $54,798 for his caucus. Obhof's campaign account brought in $24,300 with another $60,000 to his caucus.
DeWine's overall donations amounted to $72,708, plus $20,000 for his inaugural and transition committee.
Political giving by Columbus-based American Electric Power has amounted to $334,650 since 2017.