New information made public by federal prosecutors in the racketeering case against ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder revealed that $400,000 secretly paid by FirstEnergy passed through two dark money groups, One Ohio United and Citizens for a Working America, before landing at a Super PAC that supported Householder during the 2018 election.
Prosecutors said in a trial brief on Friday that they will seek to introduce a copy of One Ohio United’s annual IRS Form 990 report for 2018 as evidence at Householder’s trial, which is scheduled to begin on January 23. It’s the first time One Ohio United has been publicly named in the case.
One Ohio United is an anonymously-funded group registered with the IRS as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization. The group raised and spent $11 million between 2011 and 2020, according to a ProPublica database of financial information for nonprofits, and the sources of most of that money remain unknown to the public.
One Ohio United paid $575,000 in 2018 to another anonymously-funded 501(c)(4) organization named Citizens for a Working America, according to One Ohio United’s Form 990 for 2018.
Citizens for a Working America separately reported to the IRS that it paid $535,000 to the “Hardworking Americans PAC” in 2018.
“The evidence at trial will show that money from FirstEnergy ultimately funded Hardworking American’s effort to target Defendant Householder’s opponent, Kevin Black, in the 2018 primary,” prosecutors said in a footnote in the trial brief on Friday.
The footnote referenced Exhibit 283, which prosecutors described as a “FEC filing for Hardworking Americans in 2018.”
The trial brief linked to the FEC filing where Hardworking Americans, a Super PAC, reported it received $535,000 from Citizens for a Working America, but did not name FirstEnergy as a funder. In the same FEC filing, Hardworking Americans reported contributions from two other sources: coal producer Murray Energy and Political Education Patterns, the political arm of Ohio-based International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18.
The multi-stop money trail from FirstEnergy to Hardworking Americans was previously described as “a series of transactions” involving “another 501(c)(4)” in the following line from a statement of facts that the utility company agreed to as part of a 2021 deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors:
FirstEnergy Corp. also sent approximately $400,000 for Public Official A’s [Householder’s] benefit, at Public Official A’s request, through another 501(c)(4) in late April 2018, which through a series of transactions ultimately paid approximately $400,000 for media benefiting Public Official A before the May 2018 primary.
The earlier description of the passage of money from FirstEnergy to Hardworking Americans directly followed a section of the statement of facts that described the use of two other 501(c)(4)s, Partners for Progress and Generation Now, as a conduit for other secret payments FirstEnergy made for Householder’s benefit ahead of the 2018 primary.
Prosecutors linked the $400,000 paid to Hardworking Americans to political ads opposing Householder’s 2018 primary opponent, Kevin Black, in their new trial brief.
The prosecutors’ brief doesn’t describe how the money paid by FirstEnergy passed through One Ohio United and Citizens for a Working America before reaching Hardworking Americans, as detailed in this blog post, but the Energy and Policy Institute was able to follow the money trail back through the organizations’ tax Form 990s and FEC filings based on the information made public in the Householder case on Friday.
FirstEnergy later paid another $500,000 to a for-profit corporation called Hardworking Ohioans that spent $1.5 million on ads to support “Team Householder candidates” during the general elections in 2018, as the Columbus Dispatch reported in 2020.
Householder is charged with spearheading a “federal racketeering conspiracy involving approximately $60 million paid to a 501(c)(4) entity to pass and uphold a billion-dollar nuclear plant bailout,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio said in a 2020 press release. Generation Now, the 501(c)(4) organization that was indicted alongside Householder, pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2021.
Jury instructions proposed last week by both the prosecution and defendants in the Householder case said that bribes can take the form of campaign and 501(c)(4) contributions, as long as the money was solicited or received in exchange for an official act by a public official.
FirstEnergy has admitted that it secretly paid $60 million to influence Householder’s official actions as a state lawmaker, including his actions as speaker on House Bill 6. The 2019 Ohio law included a since-repealed ratepayer bailout for two nuclear plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor). Other provisions of HB 6 remain in effect, including a ratepayer bailout of two coal-fired Ohio Valley Electric Corporation power plants and the rollback of Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for electric utilities.
One Ohio United has also funneled money into The Empowerment Alliance, a 501(c)(4) group aligned with the gas industry, and has a history of receiving funding from other major utilities
One Ohio United paid over $3.4 million to The Empowerment Alliance (TEA) between 2019 and 2020, according to more recent annual IRS filings. TEA was behind the Affordable Energy Fund Super PAC that spent over $1 million supporting Republican candidates in Ohio during the 2022 elections.
TEA backed a bill, House Bill 507, that was amended late last year, after the elections, to define methane gas as green energy in Ohio. The bill was signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Friday, and TEA was quick to take credit on social media.
TEA’s publicly named officers have included Kentucky attorney Eric Lycan, who served as treasurer for Generation Now, and Brooke Bodney, a political fundraiser who raised money for Generation Now in 2017.
The National Review Institute has described TEA as a project of Karen Buchwald Wright, whose family has for several generations led the Ohio-based natural-gas compressor manufacturer Ariel Corporation, and her husband Tom Rastin. The couple are major GOP donors, and contributed at least $750,000 to the Republican Governors Association during the 2022 elections.
Text messages the Ohio House turned over to federal investigators after Householder’s indictment in 2020 show Bodney confronted state representative Rick Carfagna, who opposed HB 6, at an event in 2019, and expressed Buchwald Wright and Rastin’s support for the bill.
In one text message, Carfagna told state rep. David Greenspan that Lt. Governor Jon “Husted talked to Karen and ‘was working off his taking [sic] points’ which disappointed her.”
Carfagna also said that he told Bodney that he had just spoken with Buchwald Wright’s son Hunter Wright, who told Carfagna that Ariel Corp. did not support HB 6.
“She [Bodney] refused to believe me and wouldn’t let it go all night,” Carfagna said in the message.
Carfagna resigned last year to take a job with the Ohio Chamber, and Greenspan lost his bid for re-election in 2020.
AEP and Duke Energy each contributed $1 million to One Ohio United in 2011, when the group backed a state budget proposed by Governor John Kasich that slashed funding for the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, the state office that represents the interests of utility ratepayers. At the time One Ohio United was under different leadership, had a public website and publicly acknowledged the support it received from utilities.
In more recent years, One Ohio United has largely operated in the shadows.
Citizens for a Working America is part of a network of dark money groups that have spent ten of millions of dollars to influence elections since 2011
In 2020, after Householder’s arrest and indictment, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent the FBI a letter that described Citizens for a Working America’s (CWA’s) funding of the Hardworking Americans Super PAC:
One of CWA’s super PAC contributions during the 2018 election appears particularly relevant to the Householder investigation. On April 25, 2018, CWA transferred $535,000 to Hardworking Americans Committee, a super PAC based in Fenton, MI. Four days later, on April 29, 2018, Hardworking Americans Committee paid $404,000 to New Day Media, LLC for “non-federal: advertising against Ohio House candidate Kevin Black,” and $14,412 to Axiom Strategies for “non-federal: palm card for Ohio state House candidate Larry Householder.” Less than a week later, Hardworking Americans paid an additional $49,500 to New Day Media, LLC, an additional $49,580 to Axiom Strategies, and $4,000 to Remington Research Group for “non-federal: surveys for Ohio state House Candidate Larry Householder.” An ad posted to a Hardworking Americans Committee website, with the notable URL www.larryhouseholderfightsforus.com, extensively praises Mr. Householder before closing with an endorsement of “Larry Householder for State Representative.”
CREW’s letter did not trace the money back to One Ohio United or FirstEnergy, but did mention the money that Hardworking Americans received from Murray Energy.
The letter said that Citizens for a Working America’s “efforts to inject large sums of money into American elections while avoiding disclosure is not limited to Mr. Householder’s race in 2018.”
“In fact, CWA is a part of a network of nonprofits, tied together by personnel and financial connections, responsible for what CREW estimates as more than $36 million in secret spending in elections since 2011, including more than $5 million spent in Ohio elections in 2018 on both the state and federal level,” according to CREW’s 2020 letter.