American Electric Power resumed making political contributions in April, after a three-month pause in response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
“AEP forcefully condemns the violence that happened at the U.S. Capitol and the divisive actions that led up to it,” AEP said in a Facebook post and tweet on January 13. “As a nation, a company and individuals, we need to focus our energy on building unity and address the challenges we face together. AEP has paused all political contributions and will be reviewing our criteria for supporting candidates and organizations in the future.”
CEO Nick Akins touted the pause in the annual corporate accountability report AEP released in May.
AEP was one of many large corporations, including some utilities and their trade associations, that had paused their contributions in the wake of the January 6th attack. Some, like Edison International, Exelon and NRG, specifically suspended contributions to members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Others, like Duke Energy and AEP, announced a more general pause and reevaluation. Duke Energy also resumed contributions in April, including to members of Congress who had voted to overturn the election results.
AEP’s Committee for Responsible Government made a total of $43,500 in contributions in April, according to a monthly report the Political Action Committee (PAC) filed on May 17 with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The largest recipients were both state-level Republican party committees in Ohio. The Republican Senate Campaign Committee and the newly formed Ohio House Republican Alliance (OHRA) each received $20,000 from AEP’s PAC.
Prior to the pause in political contributions, AEP was already caught in a growing corruption scandal surrounding House Bill 6, a 2019 Ohio law that included a ratepayer bailout of two coal-fired power plants operated by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC). AEP is OVEC’s largest shareholder, with a 43 percent stake. Ohio ratepayers have paid over $120 million in HB 6 coal subsidies since 2020, according to a tracker maintained by the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.
The HB 6 scandal erupted last July, when the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio charged Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and five others with engaging in a $60 million bribery scheme that resulted in a $1 billion nuclear power plant bailout being signed into law as part of HB 6.
FirstEnergy, which hasn’t been formally named or charged in the Householder case, has admitted it was the source of the vast majority of that money, which was routed through a 501(c)(4) dark money group called Generation Now and a network of other murky entities. FirstEnergy’s lawyers have argued in court filings that the contributions were legal, but the company also seeking to reach a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors, something that typically involves an admission of wrongdoing. Generation Now has already pleaded guilty in the case.
AEP, which also hasn’t been named or charged in the case, has been drawn into the controversies over HB 6 and the attack on the U.S. Capitol by its past funding of another 501(C)(4) called Empowering Ohio’s Economy, which received $8.7 million from AEP between 2015 and 2019.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed $700,000 to Generation Now from 2017 to 2019. AEP’s PAC and top company executives also contributed money to Householder’s campaign in connection with fundraising events held in 2019, including Householder’s birthday party.
The Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), which helped to organize the January 6 protest and march that preceded the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, received a total of $150,000 from Empowering Ohio’s Economy between 2018 and 2019. RLDF is a 501(c)(4) arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which received $25,000 from AEP in 2020.
Contributions to AEP and FirstEnergy’s PACs were not paused
FirstEnergy also paused “PAC disbursements and employee contributions while the next steps for the FE PAC are evaluated,” according to a shareholder outreach presentation posted on the company’s website in May. The PAC, along with FirstEnergy Corp. and its service company, was served subpoenas last summer in connection with the Householder case.
FEC records tell a different story. FirstEnergy’s PAC hasn’t made a contribution since October, but the PAC has continued to receive money from FirstEnergy’s executives and employees every month since the Householder case was announced last July, and since the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January. The PAC raised just over $236,000 in the first quarter of this year and had nearly $2 million in cash on hand.
AEP’s PAC also continued to rake in contributions from the company’s executives and other employees after the January 6 attack. The AEP PAC reported receiving monthly contributions in January, February, March, and April from CEO Nick Akins, COO Lisa Barton, and other top company brass. It raised over $175,000 between January and April, and had $425,000 cash on hand.
In other words, while AEP and FirstEnergy publicly played up their respective pauses in political contributions, their PACs continued to raise money to spend later.
Some checks from AEP’s PAC were never cashed, including a $10,000 contribution to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine
As first reported by Jake Zuckerman for the Ohio Capital Journal, some of the checks written by AEP’s PAC since news of the HB 6 scandal broke have gone uncashed. A review of FEC data by the Energy and Policy Institute found that of the nearly $377,000 in contributions made by AEP’s PAC since last July, around $60,000 was later reported as voided or uncashed checks.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who signed HB 6 into law, returned $10,000 to AEP’s PAC in January “to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” according to the Ohio Capital Journal. A spokesperson for AEP also told Zuckerman that DeWine returned the money due to “pending or recently filed agency appointments.”
The $10,000 contribution to DeWine was made in December, when DeWine was considering Anne Vogel, his assistant policy director for energy and natural resources, for an open seat on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. Vogel worked as a lobbyist for AEP prior to joining Dewine’s staff.
The seat was left vacant by the resignation of former PUCO chairman Samuel Randazzo. Randazzo resigned after an FBI raid on his townhouse in Columbus, and FirstEnergy’s disclosure of a previously secret $4.3 million payment to an individual who matched his description.
DeWine later chose Jennifer Frech, a former county court judge, to replace Randazzo, after the Energy and Policy Institute reported that Vogel was among the members of the governor’s team who received gifts in 2019 from the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation.
The Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation, a 501(c)(4) that received $25,000 from the AEP-backed Empowering Ohio’s Economy, formed shortly after DeWine’s inauguration and purchased food, drinks, and entertainment for DeWine’s policy meetings at the Governor’s Residence in 2019.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy and Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation Foundation also share a board member in J.B. Hadden, an outside attorney who has worked for AEP and served as a core member of DeWine’s political fundraising team. In 2018, Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed $525,000 to State Solutions Inc., a 501(c)(4) affiliated with the Republican Governors Association, which backed DeWine for governor that year.
A new financial disclosure statement filed by Vogel in May shows she owned stock in AEP and FirstEnergy in 2020.
DeWine once again listed the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation as a source of gifts, food and beverages he received last year on his own financial disclosure statement. Other members of DeWine’s team also listed the Foundation as a source of food and beverages they received in 2020, including Lt. Governor Jon Husted, Chief of Staff Michael Hall, Director of Legislative Affairs Dan McCarthy, and Counselor Laurel Dawson. Dawson previously served as DeWine’s Chief of Staff and Hall as Director of Policy, before a staff shakeup in May.
AEP claims other checks were just lost in the mail
It’s unclear how many of the checks written by AEP’s PAC were voided or uncashed due to recipients’ concerns about the HB 6 scandal or the attack on the U.S. Capitol. AEP has said most of the uncashed checks were slow to arrive, due to mail problems during Covid-19, and voided after 90 -days.
In September, AEP’s PAC contributed $5,000 to Bob Cupp, who became the new Ohio House Speaker after Householder was ousted from the position following his arrest and indictment last summer. The check to Cupp was voided in October. AEP told the Energy & Policy Institute the check was misplaced, and FEC records show the company’s PAC contributed another $6,000 to Cupp’s campaign just over a week after the $5,000 check was voided.
A $19,583.53 contribution to the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) was also voided in September. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose referred alleged campaign finance violations against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, the HRCC, and several others to the Ohio Elections Commission last summer, but later withdrew the allegations aimed at the HRCC. LaRose received a $1,000 campaign contribution from AEP’s PAC in December.
The HRCC filed termination papers with the Ohio Secretary of State on March 29. The newly formed OHRA filed a designation of treasurer form the following day.
“My understanding is that the Ohio House Republican Alliance is a new House Republican campaign committee,” Tammy Ridout, a spokesperson for AEP, said in response to an email from the Energy and Policy Institute.
The $20,000 from AEP’s PAC is currently the only contribution to the OHRA found by a search of Ohio’s online campaign finance database.
The Columbus address listed by OHRA is the same address that was used by the HRCC. It’s also the address for the Winterset CPA Group, an accounting firm previously employed by the HRCC and other Republican candidate and party committees in Ohio.
AEP gave money to some members of the Ohio House select committee tasked with repealing HB 6
In September, AEP’s PAC contributed money to seven members of a newly formed Ohio House select committee tasked with repealing and replacing HB 6, including $1,000 to the committee’s chairman James Hoops.
Only one of those contributions was later reported as voided or uncashed by AEP’s PAC: a contribution to state representative Rick Carfagna, who co-sponsored legislation to fully repeal HB 6.
The two-year legislative session ended in December with the select committee having failed to repeal any portion of HB 6. When a new session began in January, the select committee no longer existed, but Hoops became the new chairman of the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee.
Ohio lawmakers finally repealed portions of HB 6, including the nuclear power plant bailout and other provisions that benefited FirstEnergy, in March, but have so far left in place the OVEC coal bailout that benefits AEP.
Bribes can take the form of political contributions, according to AEP’s own Anti-Corruption Policy
The Energy and Policy Institute asked Ridout why AEP believed April was the right time to resume making political contributions.
“Following our decision to suspend political contributions, we put together an internal team to review and evaluate our guidelines for contributing to candidates and organizations,” Ridout said. “We have lifted the pause on contributions and are confident that our Political Engagement Policy, Principles of Business Conduct and Anti-Corruption Policy will allow us to continue meaningful political engagement and uphold our values.”
According to AEP’s Anti-Corruption Policy:
“Bribe” means offering, promising, giving or authorizing others, such as lobbyists and political consultants, to give anything of value, tangible or intangible, either directly or indirectly, to any individual – including Government Officials – to gain an unfair business advantage or to influence improperly an official’s decision-making with respect to the Company.
Bribes can include charitable and political contributions, AEP’s Anti-Corruption Policy states.
Top photo from Flickr by Tyler Merbler. Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
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