The Randazzler: Court records detail chummy relationship between Sam Randazzo, FirstEnergy

Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo listens to a court hearing in Summit County.
Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo listens to a court hearing in Summit County.
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The chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is supposed to act like an impartial referee, balancing the interests of utilities and customers − both large industrial users and average Ohioans paying their electrical bills.

But court records filed Friday reveal former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo had a close, chummy relationship with ex-executives of Akron-based FirstEnergy and its allies.

For example, Randazzo texted an image of of himself dressed as a superhero and surrounded by terms like "Randazzler," "Poppa Dazzo" and "Sambo," a derogatory term for a person of African descent, to FirstEnergy's then-senior Vice President of External Affairs Michael Dowling, former Boich Companies' Matt Evans and then-FirstEnergy lobbyist Michael Dawson, the husband of Gov. Mike DeWine's longtime adviser Laurel Pressler Dawson in early 2020.

Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo sent this image of himself dressed as a superhero to FirstEnergy lobbyist Michael Dawson, former FirstEnergy executive Michael Dowling and Boich Companies' Matt Evans, according to court records.
Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo sent this image of himself dressed as a superhero to FirstEnergy lobbyist Michael Dawson, former FirstEnergy executive Michael Dowling and Boich Companies' Matt Evans, according to court records.

Randazzo also dressed as Rudolph the reindeer in a group picture from December 2019 that featured Dowling and Evans donning Santa suits. After a massive energy bill passed that benefited FirstEnergy, then-CEO Chuck Jones shared a meme of Mount Rushmore transposed with the faces of Randazzo, Dowling, Evans and FirstEnergy lobbyist Ty Pine with the phrase: "HB 6 F--- ANYBODY WHO AINT US"

But Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost alleges Randazzo's sophomoric communication with FirstEnergy leaders extended beyond memes and Christmas costumes to a pay-to-play scheme at Ohio ratepayers' expense.

Jones and Dowling are accused of paying Randazzo $4.3 million to work on FirstEnergy's behalf inside DeWine's administration to save the utility money and pass House Bill 6 to bail out two nuclear plants then-owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. FirstEnergy paid Randazzo shortly before DeWine appointed Randazzo to lead the PUCO, without ever receiving an invoice for the payment.

Randazzo is also accused of skimming money off side deals he crafted between utilities, including FirstEnergy and American Electric Power, and his large industrial user clients.

Jones, Dowling and Randazzo have pleaded not guilty to charges Yost filed in Summit County in February. Dowling said in a court deposition that the $4.3 million was related to a 2015 settlement. Randazzo described the money as payment for a consulting agreement.

Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo, right, is dressed as Rudolph the reindeer in a Christmas photo with Boich Comanies' Matt Evans, FirstEnergy's Michael Dowling and lobbyist David DeStefano included in a court case filed against Randazzo in Summit County. He has pleaded not guilty.
Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo, right, is dressed as Rudolph the reindeer in a Christmas photo with Boich Comanies' Matt Evans, FirstEnergy's Michael Dowling and lobbyist David DeStefano included in a court case filed against Randazzo in Summit County. He has pleaded not guilty.

Randazzo also faces criminal charges in federal court and has pleaded not guilty to those offenses. He is also accused of violating professional code of conduct rules that attorneys must follow.

A better side deal: Learning from Duke Energy's $80M settlement

Before leading the PUCO, Randazzo worked as an attorney for Industrial Energy Users-Ohio, a group of companies that used a large amount of electricity and were looking for discounts. Randazzo made side deals between utilities and those customers; the former would offer a refund or other benefit and the latter would drop any opposition to higher bills for other customers.

More: The art of the side deal: How large energy users get refunds that average Ohioans don't

In 2015, Cincinnati-based Duke Energy paid an $80 million settlement to end a lawsuit over deals it gave large energy users like General Motors and Marathon that the average Ohio customers couldn't access. Randazzo was instrumental in trying to conceal that deal from the public, according to the recently filed court records, which Cleveland.com first reported.

Randazzo opposed the Ohio Consumers' Counsel's efforts to make side deals public, according to a 2007 letter he wrote to the PUCO chairman.

"We suspect, based on a pattern of OCC's behavior, that the placement of this information in the public domain will be accompanied by its efforts to cast other stakeholders, including IEU-Ohio or its members, and the Commission in a bad light through press releases and other actions," Randazzo wrote.

The Duke Energy settlement was a public, embarrassing moment. State prosecutors allege Randazzo took lessons from that lawsuit into future side deals − keeping FirstEnergy's arrangements even more under wraps.

"Randazzo applied the lessons he learned in Duke Energy to the multi-million-dollar cash side deal that he cut with FirstEnergy in 2015," according to the court records.

'Having Sam engaged is key'

The 63-page bill of particulars filed Friday details the case against Randazzo, Dowling and Jones. The court filing includes text messages that paint a picture of how FirstEnergy relied on Randazzo to craft legislation that benefited FirstEnergy and fend off an audit or rate case that might have cost the company money.

"Having Sam engaged is key. He doesn't use the word lightly." Dowling texted FirstEnergy Solutions' executive Chairman John Kiani.

"Yeah he is a bad a--," Kiani replied.

Prosecutors accused Randazzo of concealing his relationship with FirstEnergy by not reporting his agreement or earnings on annual ethics forms. FirstEnergy did not list Randazzo as a lobbyist. Randazzo also did not disclose the $10,000 he loaned to Michael Dawson in 2016.

In addition to Randazzo, Jones and Dowling, Yost's office recently filed criminal charges against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder for using campaign funds to pay his criminal defense attorneys. Householder is serving 20 years in federal prison for orchestrating a pay-to-play scheme with FirstEnergy.

Yost has not disclosed whether anyone else will be charged.

Bill of Particulars by Jessie Balmert on Scribd

Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Records: Ex-PUCO chair Randazzo had close relationship with FirstEnergy