Ohio's bribery scandal being raised as issue in race for governor

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Jul. 24—COLUMBUS — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is being hammered from both sides of the aisle — including from beyond the grave — with claims he is part of a culture of Ohio Statehouse corruption as the Republican heads into his 2022 re-election campaign.

Last week's settlement deal with FirstEnergy Corp., the utility at the heart of a year-old bribery scandal, brought the investigation further into the governor's circle. While federal prosecutors said at the outset Mr. DeWine was not a target of the ongoing racketeering investigation, current Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel declined to answer that question Thursday.

This has not stopped Jim Renacci, a Republican opponent in next year's primary election, from claiming Mr. DeWine has been "bought and paid for by special-interest groups."

"Mike DeWine helped create a culture of corruption where sweetheart deals and bribes are normalized in Columbus. He and key members of his administration have been entangled and some now named in this web of corruption, yet DeWine has refused to come clean about his administration's involvement. Yesterday's settlement news proves there is merit to the allegations and much more will come out," Mr. Renacci said in a statement issued Friday.

At best, the governor's response to GOP corruption has been tepid, according to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, to date the sole announced Democratic candidate.

Thursday's FirstEnergy charges "make clear that this corruption case reaches the highest levels of government in Ohio." she said. "Enough is enough. It's time for Governor DeWine to come clean about his knowledge and involvement in this scandal."

One of Mr. DeWine's accusers is unavailable to be cross-examined.

Neil Clark, a powerhouse Columbus lobbyist also charged in the bribery scandal, wrote a book before he committed suicide in Florida in February. "What Do I Know? I'm Just a Lobbyist" has since been published online by Amazon.

In it, he accused the governor of agreeing to accept a $5 million contribution in 2018, funneled through the Republican Governors' Association, from FirstEnergy and its then-subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, in exchange for his support of the bailout law.

Mr. DeWine's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment specifically for this story.

In a statement responding to Thursday's FirstEnergy charge by the U.S. Attorney's office, the governor said he would donate an amount equivalent to what his campaign committee received from the utility to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

"If, as stated in the court documents, Sam Randazzo committed acts to improperly benefit FirstEnergy, his motives were not known to me or my staff," he said Thursday.

Ten months out from the primary election, Mr. DeWine — a former U.S. senator and state attorney general — still has to be considered the frontrunner in next May's Republican primary over Mr. Renacci, a former congressman from northeast Ohio.

A little-known central Ohio cattle farmer, Joe Bystone, has also announced his campaign to challenge the incumbent for the GOP nomination.

Despite the primary contest, Mr. DeWine is expected to be endorsed by the Ohio Republican Party's central committee when it meets in September. The governor has proven to be a powerful fund-raiser and has deep pockets of his own, demonstrated by millions of his own money that he has loaned to his campaign committee over the years.

"DeWine has a significant amount of crossover approval with Democrats," said Kyle Kondik, communications director for the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of the book, The Bellwether: Why Ohio Elects the President.

"In the general election, he may be in pretty good shape," he said. "But that could erode if Republican and Democratic attacks on DeWine take a toll, and the nuclear bailout is part of that."

Marc Clauson, a Cedarville University professor of history, said it's still far out from the primary election.

"Unless someone can make a verifiable and valid connection of some kind, I don't think it's going to affect Mike DeWine much at all," he said. "...If anything is going to affect him at this point, it's going to be harm along divisions caused within the party of the electorate.

"For example, in the Republican Party in Ohio, there are divisions between more conservative and middle-of-the-road conservatives over things like gun rights and the handling of COVID," he said. "That could definitely hurt him."

Mr. Renacci was briefly a candidate for governor against Mr. DeWine in 2018 before he switched to the U.S. Senate race, in which he lost to Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown.

Ms. Whaley was also an early 2016 candidate for governor, participating in several Democratic debates before dropping out to make way for Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and federal consumer watchdog. Mr. Cordray went on to win his party's nomination but lost the general election to Mr. DeWine.

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder faces federal racketeering charges carrying up to 20 years in prison for his alleged role in the bribery scheme leading to House Bill 6, the nuclear-plant bailout law. In a vote unmatched in 150 years, his Ohio House of Representatives colleagues ousted him from his rural central Ohio district last month, nearly a year after taking away his speaker's gavel.

Also awaiting trial is former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges.

The scheme, to which two people have already pleaded guilty, used the nonprofit corporation Generation Now to launder cash from FirstEnergy and related entities to help elect lawmakers loyal to Mr. Householder in 2018 and help return him to the speaker's podium the next year.

He is accused of then using that power to enact House Bill 6, a $1 billion bailout of two Lake Erie nuclear power plants then owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. The scheme then continued to kill a subsequent petition effort to subject the controversial law to voter referendum.

FirstEnergy on Thursday agreed Thursday to pay a $230 million penalty, admitting to its role in the scheme and bringing the investigation's tentacles closer to Mr. DeWine.

The governor initially defended his pick as chairman of the powerful Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo, a former long-time lobbyist for electric utilities, after the FBI raided the latter's home in November. But in a court filing Thursday, the U.S Attorney's office claims FirstEnergy helped engineer Mr. Randazzo's appointment to the chairmanship and paid him a $4.3 million consulting fee on the way out the door.

The Randazzo-led PUCO later removed a requirement that FirstEnergy file for a new rate case in 2024 that was expected to hit its books hard, given the end of energy-efficiency mandates that were driving revenues to the utility.

The governor had made it clear he was aware of Mr. Randazzo's ties to FirstEnergy, but he later accepted the PUCO chief's resignation after the utility revealed the consulting payout in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Mr. Randazzo has not been charged with a crime.

The governor's legislative lobbyist, Dan McCarthy, had also served as president of the nonprofit Partners for Progress, identified as one of the "dark money" entities involved in the alleged bribery web. A former FirstEnergy lobbyist, Mr. McCarthy resigned from Partners before joining the DeWine administration in 2019.

Both Mr. Householder and Mr. Borges have pleaded not guilty and await trial. Two individuals, political consultant Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes, have pleaded guilty, as has Generation Now.

Mr. Kondik said how much of an issue this will be for Mr. DeWine when the primary rolls around in May will depend on whether more information involving the governor becomes known.

But he noted voters already knew about the bribery scandal charges in 2020 and still added to Republican super-majorities in both the House and Senate.

"DeWine has had Republicans who haven't liked him for a very long time," Mr. Kondik said. "...Frankly, Renacci has a lot to prove as a candidate. He didn't come out of 2018 looking particularly strong after having lost to Sherrod Brown."

Mr. DeWine signed the bailout law but he later championed its repeal, arguing that despite his continued support of the nuclear plants at its heart, the law had been tainted by the scandal.

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