Empowering Ohio’s Economy, a group funded solely by American Electric Power, contributed more than $1.5 million to dark money groups in 2020, according to the organization’s tax filings.
The source of Empowering Ohio’s Economy’s funding remained a secret until last year, when the group became ensnared in the public corruption scandal surrounding Ohio’s House Bill 6, the 2019 law that increased and extended ratepayer-funded subsidies for the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation coal plants largely owned by AEP. Nicholas Akins, the CEO of American Electric Power (AEP), admitted during an earnings call in August 2020 that AEP had contributed $8.7 million to Empower Ohio’s Economy since 2015, which represented all of the group’s funding as of 2019.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed a total of $700,000 to Generation Now Inc., a “purported” 501(c)(4) social welfare group connected to now former Ohio Speaker Larry Householder, from 2017 to 2019. Generation Now pleaded guilty earlier this year to racketeering in connection with nearly $60 million in bribe payments secretly paid by another Ohio utility, FirstEnergy, involved in the passage of H.B. 6. Householder was also indicted last year and awaits trial next year.
AEP announced in June that it received a subpoena from the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking documents related to H.B. 6. The utility also faces several lawsuits filed by shareholders related to the scandal, and a federal judge is set to hear arguments on AEP’s motion to dismiss one of those lawsuits on Tuesday.
The Energy and Policy Institute obtained a copy, marked “DRAFT,” of the Empowering Ohio’s Economy’s annual Form 990 for 2020 from the group. 501(c)(4) groups are legally required by the Internal Revenue Service to provide Form 990s to the public upon request.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy reported no new revenue in 2020, meaning all of the money it spent last year originated from contributions AEP made to the group in previous years.
The group spent over $1.6 million in 2020, most of which went to the $1.5 million in contributions that Empowering Ohio’s Economy made to other 501(c)(4) groups, which are not required to disclose their donors.
Open Road Path: A dark money group that ended 2020 with $3 million that originated with AEP
One 501(c)(4) group, called Open Road Path, received over $1 million from Empowering Ohio’s Economy in 2020. At the end of last year, Open Road Path was sitting on a bankroll of nearly $3 million, according to a copy of the group’s 2020 Form 990.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy also contributed $2 million to Open Road Path in 2019, meaning all of Open Road Path’s known funding came from the AEP-backed Empowering Ohio’s Economy.
Open Road Path reported little spending in 2019, when the group was formed, and in 2020.
The board of directors for Open Road Path included attorney J.B. Hadden, who has served as outside counsel for AEP. Tom Froehle, who was vice president of external affairs for the utility, also served on the group’s board.
Hadden and Froehle both served on the board of Empowering Ohio’s Economy.
AEP announced this summer that Froehle would be retiring from the company after 11 years on the job. The announcement included no mention of Froehle’s role in Empowering Ohio’s Economy and Open Road Path, or the H.B. 6 corruption scandal.
$500,000 to support Larry Householder’s bid to remain Ohio House speaker by weakening Ohio’s term-limits
Coalition for Term Limits Inc., another 501(c)(4) group, received $500,000 from Empowering Ohio’s Economy in 2020, as first reported in July by Laura Bischoff for the Columbus Dispatch. The group was set up in March of 2020 as part of an effort to alter Ohio’s existing term-limits law so that Householder, who was still the Ohio House Speaker at the time, could maintain his House seat for up to 16 years.
New details about the term-limits scheme were revealed this summer when federal prosecutors reached a deferred prosecution agreement with FirstEnergy. As part of the deal, FirstEnergy admitted it secretly paid $2 million to support Householder’s bid to remain Speaker for the remainder of his political career.
The $500,000 contribution to the Coalition for Term Limits that Empowering Ohio’s Economy reported on its Form 990 confirms AEP’s link to the failed effort.
Householder was expelled from the Ohio House in June, nearly a year after his arrest and removal as speaker.
$100,000 to a group that spent money on ads targeting a Republican State Senate race
Liberty Ohio Inc. received $50,000 in 2020 from Empowering Ohio’s Economy. The group, yet another 501(c)(4), also received $50,000 from Empowering Ohio’s Economy in 2019, for a total of $100,000.
Last year, Liberty Ohio was behind a website and ads targeting the Republican primary for Ohio’s 4th State Senate district. The group attacked candidate Candice Keller, who as a member of the Ohio House in 2019 voted against H.B. 6. Keller lost the primary to another state representative, George Lang, who voted for H.B. 6 and received campaign money from AEP’s PAC.
Liberty Ohio raised over $1 million in 2019, about $150,000 of which can be traced back to FirstEnergy.
More secret spending linked to AEP
The Energy and Policy Institute also obtained a copy of the 2020 annual report filed with the IRS by the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation, another 501(c)(4) that counts Hadden among its board members.
In 2020, the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation raised only $23,500 from contributions, down from $372,000 in 2019.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed $25,000 to the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Office Foundation in 2019. The group’s other sources of funding remain a mystery.