American Electric Power (AEP) made campaign contributions to seven Ohio state representatives after they joined a new select committee tasked with repealing and replacing House Bill 6, the energy law passed last year that’s now a focus of the federal racketeering case against indicted former Ohio House speaker Larry Householder.
The American Electric Power Committee for Responsible Government contributed a total of $7,500 to the campaigns of the seven state reps in September, according to reports the PAC filed this month with the Federal Elections Commission and the Ohio Secretary of State. The lawmakers make up nearly half of the fifteen-member Ohio House Select Committee on Energy Policy and Oversight.
AEP’s PAC contributed $1,000 to James Hoop, the Republican chair of the select committee. Republican committee members Brian Baldridge, Dick Stein, Jason Stephens, Scott Wiggam and Democrat Michael O’Brien also received $1,000 each. Republican Rick Carfagna received $1,500.
“AEP’s PAC is an employee run organization funded through employee contributions,” Melissa McHenry, a spokesperson for AEP told the Energy and Policy Institute via email.
McHenry said the PAC “routinely supports candidates who serve on committees addressing issues that impact the company, particularly during election cycles.”
The new Ohio House speaker Bob Cubb first announced plans to form the select committee on August 31, about a month after Householder was ousted as speaker following his indictment in July on federal bribery and money laundering charges.
AEP’s PAC reported that it made a $5,000 campaign contribution to Cupp in September, but then later reported that contribution was voided.
“According to the AEP PAC committee, the contribution check was voided because they were notified that it had been misplaced,” McHenry said.
Federal prosecutors allege that Householder and four political operatives indicted in the case secretly received $60 million through a front group called Generation Now Inc., which was also indicted, to secure a $1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants in Ohio previously slated for closure via HB 6.
AEP stands to benefit if state lawmakers fail to repeal HB 6, or if they replace it with a new bill that preserves elements of the original. AEP lobbied in support of HB 6, which by 2030 could also force ratepayers in Ohio to pay up to $450 million in new surcharges on the electricity bills for two coal-fired power plants operated by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC). AEP owns a 43 percent equity stake in OVEC and buys around 60 percent of the power from the two coal plants, one of which is located in Indiana.
No publicly traded company has been formally named or charged by federal prosecutors in connection with what U.S. Attorney David Devillers said was “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio” during a news conference in July.
Prosecutors have subpoenaed FirstEnergy, which is widely understood to be “Company A,” described as the primary funder of the scheme in an 80-page affidavit by a special agent for the FBI and 43-page indictment filed in the case. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Energy Harbor, the new company that emerged in February from the bankruptcy of FirstEnergy Solutions, and which now owns the nuclear plants, has also been subpoenaed. FirstEnergy and Energy Harbor are also named in a related lawsuit filed by Ohio attorney general Dave Yost.
A poll found strong public support for repealing HB 6 in the wake of the announcement of the federal investigation, but the select committee hasn’t held a hearing since the end of September, and no further hearings are planned before the November 3 election.
The Republican majority in the Ohio House reportedly wants to repeal HB 6, but then replace it with a new bill that retains most of the same provisions. A copy-cat replacement bill would cost Ohio money and lives by maintaining the current law’s costly bailouts for nuclear and coal plants, and its rollback of renewable energy and energy efficiency requirements for the state’s electric utilities.
AEP and the HB 6 scandal
McHenry confirmed that AEP has not been subpoenaed or contacted by investigators in connection with the Householder case, and the company maintains that it was not involved in any “wrongful conduct” described in the federal investigation.
The Energy and Policy Institute and Columbus Dispatch previously reported that AEP is the sole funder of Empowering Ohio’s Economy, a 501(c)(4) social welfare group that contributed a total of $150,000 to Generation Now in 2017 and 2018.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy also contributed $200,000 in 2017 to the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity, another Householder-linked group that is named as a “non-defendant participant” in Yost’s state lawsuit and reported to be the “Coalition” described, but not fully named or charged in the federal racketeering case.
Householder’s top political strategist Jeff Longstreth oversaw “political activities for the Coalition,” according to the federal affidavit. Longstreth pleaded guilty to racketeering charges last week, in connection with his work for Householder and Generation Now.
Public records reviewed by the Energy and Policy Institute show how the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity spent money on ads supporting an earlier 2017 AEP-backed bill to subsidize the OVEC coal plants, as described in greater detail below.
“You would need to ask Empowering Ohio’s Economy about the contributions that it made to the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity,” McHenry said when asked about the contributions.
AEP faces a class-action lawsuit by shareholders who claim they suffered significant losses from the company’s alleged “participation in public corruption with respect to the passage of House Bill 6,” as the company described last week in its quarterly report. The lawsuit points to AEP’s funding of Empowering Ohio’s Economy.
Federal investigators’ focus on Energy Harbor puts OVEC and AEP at risk
When FirstEnergy Solutions (FES) filed for bankruptcy in 2018, it sought to shed its 4.65 percent equity stake and cancel its contracts with OVEC, which resulted in protracted litigation.
After Energy Harbor emerged from FES’s bankruptcy, it reached a settlement with OVEC. Energy Harbor agreed to pay $32.5 million and assume FES’s stake in OVEC.
Energy Harbor’s attorneys at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which last year lobbied on behalf of FES in support of HB 6, told the bankruptcy court that the new company still viewed OVEC as a financial burden, but understood that “OVEC is focused on improving its operational cost structure and that recent Ohio state legislation will assist OVEC in maintaining financial stability while doing so.”
In other words, Energy Harbor will not only benefit from HB 6’s $1 billion nuclear bailout, but also from the OVEC coal subsidies included in the bill signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. While HB 6 was pitched as establishing a new “Clean Air Program” for Ohio, it also enabled FES to cancel plans to shutter 1,490 MW of coal generation at the super-polluter Sammis power plant. Energy Harbor now owns Sammis.
Energy Harbor’s lawyers described the deal with OVEC as delivering millions of dollars in benefits to FES’s creditors:
… OVEC will waive its claims against FES, including its asserted rejection damages claim of approximately $531 million. Creditors of FES will no longer be diluted by OVEC’s asserted claim, which, assuming the estimated recoveries in the Disclosure Statement, would have been entitled to receive cash distributions of over $160 million if allowed in full.
“If HB 6 is repealed and not replaced, Energy Harbor’s financial ability to participate in the ICPA [OVEC’s Inter-company Power Agreement] could be adversely impacted,” AEP said last week in a section of its quarterly report that disclosed financial risks it may face if OVEC runs short on cash or has to take on more debt.
AEP’s CEO and other top executives contributed money to Householder’s campaign last fall, when the former Ohio House speaker declared victory over HB 6 opponents
Householder still holds his seat in the Ohio House and has used nearly $1 million in campaign funds to pay for his legal fees, spending which Ohio’s attorney general described as illegal.
Last month, AEP’s PAC voided a $19,583.53 campaign contribution from July to the House Republican Campaign Committee that’s affiliated with Householder. The contribution was dated July 5, prior to the public announcement of the Householder investigation on July 21.
“The request had been made before the FBI investigation was public,” McHenry said. “After the investigation was public, it was determined that this contribution should not be made.”
Pro-HB 6 forces aligned with Householder already faced public allegations of bribery last October, but that didn’t stop AEP executives from contributing to Householder’s campaign after HB 6 went into effect on October 21, 2019. Householder issued a statement on that day, in response to the news that “backers of a referendum on House Bill 6 have failed to garner sufficient support to place the issue on the ballot” in 2020.
“I am pleased that House Bill 6 will go into effect at midnight tonight and am confident it will produce positive results for Ohio,” Householder said in the statement later mentioned in the federal investigation against him.
Thirty-nine AEP employees, including members of the utility’s top brass and lobbying teams, contributed nearly $30,000 to Householder’s campaign between October 18 and November 18 of last year, according to a campaign finance report in which Householder reported raising over $1 million during the second half of last year.
All but one of those contributions from AEP employees were made in connection with two events held last November 7 and 17, according to Householder’s campaign finance report. The contributions from AEP employees were the only contributions found in the report associated with the events on those two dates.
McHenry could only confirm that AEP employees attended one of those events, held on November 7, which she said was sponsored by the Friends of Larry Householder, not AEP.
McHenry said “our employees attended to hear a general update from Speaker Householder.”
The largest contribution came from AEP’s CEO, Nicholas Akins, who contributed $5,000 to Householder that the campaign finance report connected to the Nov. 17 event.
Other contributors to Householder’s campaign last fall included senior executives from AEP and its Ohio subsidiary.
11/7/2019 Householder event:
- $1,500 from Lisa Barton, AEP’s executive vice president of utilities, who oversees the activities of all of the utility’s operating companies
- $1,500 from Lana Hillebrand, AEP’s chief administrative officer
- $1,500 from Charles Patton, AEP’s executive vice president of external affairs
- $1,500 from Charles Zebula, AEP’s executive vice president of energy supply
- $1,500 from Raja Sundararajan, president and CEO of AEP Ohio
11/17/2019 Householder event:
- $1,500 from David Feinberg, AEP’s executive vice president, general counsel and secretary
- $1,500 from Mark McCollough, AEP executive vice president of transmission
- $1,000 from Paul Chodak, executive vice president of generation
Brain Tierney, AEP’s chief financial officer, contributed an additional $1,500 on November 17, but no event date was listed for Tierney’s contribution.
McHenry described the campaign contributions as business as usual for the company’s employees.
“AEP employees, including executives, regularly attend events with policymakers and routinely make political contributions throughout our 11 state service area,” she said. “These political contributions are required to be disclosed by the groups that receive them.”
“It would not be unusual for company leaders to make an individual political contribution to the Speaker of the House in any state where we operate,” McHenry also said.
“A bribe is not just a suitcase of cash,” notes AEP’s own Principles of Business Conduct, which states that bribes may include political contributions.
“‘Bribe’ means offering (or accepting) anything of value for the purpose of influencing a business decision or securing any kind of improper advantage,” AEP’s principles say.
Householder’s campaign committee reported that it paid the Columbus Club Company $1,696.37 for food for an Nov. 7, 2019 event. Membership in the exclusive Columbus Club is by invitation only, and the club describes itself as the “city’s most prominent club for leaders of business, education, healthcare, law, government and culture.”
Householder’s campaign also reported that it received campaign contributions last fall from FirstEnergy’s PAC and from FES executives in connection with events held on other dates in November.
The Ohio Republican Party also hosted a cigar party and dinner to kick off the 2020 election season on the evening of Nov. 7, 2019 at Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton, Ohio, which featured Trump campaign advisor Bob Paduchik and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Paduchik made calls to state lawmakers last spring asking them to support HB 6. Lewandowski reportedly joined FirstEnergy in pressing the Trump administration for a federal bailout for struggling coal and nuclear power plants in 2017.
AEP’s PAC also contributed money for Householder’s 2019 birthday fundraiser
The individual contributions from AEP employees came after the utility’s PAC contributed $12,500 to Householder’s campaign earlier last year, which campaign finance reports linked to an event held on June 6, 2019. Ohio law limits a PAC’s contributions to any state house candidate to $13,292 per calendar year.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that Householder held a birthday fundraiser last year on June 6 that brought in $960,000 for his campaign. Householder’s campaign committee reported spending thousands of dollars on phone calls, a classic rock cover band, and food and beverages for the bash.
The birthday fundraiser was held one day prior to a week in which Generation Now planned to spend nearly $2 million on media in support of HB 6, according to the federal affidavit, which was still being debated by the Ohio legislature.
AEP lobbyists who contributed to Householder’s campaign last year involved with 501(c)(4) groups now under scrutiny
Householder was also scheduled to meet with Froehle and Haberman this February, according to a copy of Householder’s calendar included in the Ohio House’s response to a federal subpoena and to an Ohio Open Records Law request originally filed by the Columbus Dispatch.
Froehle serves on the board of Empowering Ohio’s Economy, the AEP-backed 501(c)(4) group that contributed money to Generation Now and the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity.
In July, AEP released a statement from Akins in response to the federal investigation, and confirmed AEP’s funding of Empowering Ohio’s Economy.
“AEP has made contributions to Empowering Ohio’s Economy to support its mission of promoting economic and business development and educational programs in Ohio,” the statement said. “These contributions were done appropriately, and we have every reason to believe that the organizations we support have acted in a lawful and ethical manner.”
Records indicate that the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity spent at least $191,000 in 2017 on a campaign in support of an earlier bill backed by AEP that sought to deliver subsidies for the OVEC coal plants.
On October 23, 2017, AEP lobbyist Maria Haberman emailed the audio for a radio ad supporting House Bill 239 to one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill, which AEP drafted with the help of Ohio state representative Bill Seitz and his then-aide Jimmy Wolfe, would have provided nearly $257 million in ratepayer subsidies to the two OVEC coal plants. Seitz is reportedly considering a run for speaker of the Ohio House next year.
The radio ads were paid for by the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity, according to radio station filings with the FCC that described House Bill 239 ads as follows:
The Coalition’s Form 990 report to the IRS for 2017 disclosed $191,000 in compensation that it paid to Strategic Media Placement for “Radio Production and Placement.”
The Coalition disclosed a total of $236,000 in related expenses that included advocacy for “less regulation to keep energy prices low and create jobs.”:
The same amount was listed as spent on “Advertising and promotion,” while $0 was reported for lobbying by the Coalition.
Only two contributors were listed on the Coalition’s Form 990’s Schedule B, which was redacted, which means Empowering Ohio’s Economy was one of only two contributors to the group in 2017.