Latest Updates | Judge in Ohio Who Helped Create a Bailout That Resulted in Arrests Is Now Trying to Stop Outside Investigations!
Subpoenaed records reveal an Ohio judge participated in designing a coal and nuclear bailout now at the focus of what prosecutors call Ohio’s greatest public corruption case.
One of those regulatory instances involves a government watchdog organisation seeking to examine the same misconduct. His 18-month-long instructions halted various investigations into a utility at the core of the issue.
Randazzo helped hide an audit for FirstEnergy Corp., according to the company’s CEO in a text message. Another avoided appointing an independent auditor to evaluate the company’s operations after it was accused of engaging in a bribery scheme in court filings.
Price is an attorney examiner at the Ohio Public Utilities Commission, where he handles matters involving utility companies, homeowners, businesses, and others. Examiners sit over PUCO case hearings, make procedural decisions such which parties must turn over evidence, and advise the five-member panel on final rulings.
The PUCO, which regulates utility companies and sets power prices, turned over troves of documents to the US Department of Justice in answer to two subpoenas.
The records reveal Price helped develop the legislation, was regularly updated on its progress, vetted HB 6 for the PUCO, and was informed of its status after the FBI arrested the Ohio House speaker and four suspected co-conspirators.
The legislation allowed FirstEnergy to “decouple” its revenue from its energy sales, which its CEO said would “recession-proof” the company.
According to prosecutors, former House Speaker Larry Householder used $60 million from FirstEnergy to push the law, benefiting himself financially and politically. With the DOJ in 2021, FirstEnergy admitted to bribing not just Householder but also former PUCO chairman Sam Randazzo. Prior to his appointment, the business paid Randazzo $4.3 million in regulatory favours.
She is innocent and awaiting trial. Randazzo is uncharged and maintains his innocence. FirstEnergy paid a $230 million fine and is cooperating with the investigation to avoid a wire fraud conviction.
Beyond the criminal investigations, the PUCO has four open FirstEnergy and House Bill 6 lawsuits. Price is now in charge of determining what evidence FirstEnergy must provide to outside investigators. Price, says Ashley Brown, a former PUCO commissioner and current executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group.
The fact that he was involved in policy matters and then adjudicated them strikes Brown as odd. “I would recuse myself.”
Price declined to comment on the subpoenaed data or his participation in the passing of HB 6. Concerned about the status of PUCO proceedings and ongoing criminal investigations, PUCO spokesperson Matt Schilling declined to comment.
But he defended Price’s alleged role in HB 6.
According to Schilling, the PUCO or its subject matter experts are frequently asked to analyse and comment on legislation affecting public utilities and commercial transportation.
Utility law is complicated and requires industrial and legal expertise. But an administrative law judge like Price is meant to be objective and open, says Sierra Club environmentalist Neil Waggoner.
“The PUCO, notably under Randazzo’s leadership, proved to be neither,” he remarked. The PUCO commissioners and staff must answer for their influence and involvement in HB 6 and repeal efforts, as well as how it may or may not have impacted ongoing processes.
On May 7, 2019, then-PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo speaks about House Bill 6. Ohio Channel
Arrested July 21, 2020. Inexplicably, the PUCO didn’t investigate FirstEnergy until September 15 of that year.
When it eventually did, it refused to employ an outside auditor to evaluate if the corporation had broken any laws in passing the measure. Instead of a neutral investigator, Price had a FirstEnergy official testify before the PUCO. At the time, FirstEnergy denied any wrongdoing.
In November 2020, Randazzo stepped down as chairman after the FBI raided his apartment and FirstEnergy paid him $4.3 million. After Householder’s incarceration, the board of directors initiated an internal inquiry that uncovered the payment.
A hearing on whether FirstEnergy must turn over the same internal investigation to the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, a state-funded watchdog body that defends residential consumers before the PUCO, was held in September 2021. Price instructed the corporation to evaluate it secretly before deciding whether to provide it over.
“We’ve heard a lot about this internal probe, but we can’t rule on whether it’s privileged,” Price added.
The PUCO said the report was protected by attorney-client privilege and did not need to be shared.
Around the same time, Price determined FirstEnergy didn’t have to turn over papers to the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel. Price refused the request pending the FEC’s audit.
“When FERC releases a public audit, we can review this issue,” he ruled in August 2021, according to a hearing transcript.
The FERC investigation showed FirstEnergy misused $71 million to push for HB 6 and ordered the business to reimburse consumers. OCC has subsequently requested Price to keep his commitment. A decision is pending.
Larry Householder speaks to media on June 16 after legislators decided to remove him. He is on trial for racketeering and has pleaded not guilty. Jake Zuckerman photo
The PUCO must approve any additional fees added to customers’ invoices.
A “Distribution Modernization Rider” (DMR) charge was approved by FirstEnergy in 2017. The PUCO refused the Consumers’ Counsel’s request to attach a return mechanism to the fee. Adding a refund option was deemed counterproductive.
After two years, one lawsuit, and $458 million in consumer payments, the Ohio Supreme Court declared the fee illegal and stopped it. However, the PUCO did not ensure FirstEnergy used the funds to update the grid (despite the name). Unless PUCO clearly specifies a return system, the court cannot require reimbursements.
When the PUCO approved the charge, it engaged Oxford Advisors to monitor the money and provide a final report. Oxford, via PUCO, requested a report filing extension. Instead, the commissioners decided the audit was “moot” and dismissed the matter on Feb. 26, 2020.
Less than two weeks later, FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones texted another executive (the Consumers’ Counsel received the text via records request).
Jones said Randazzo “will get it done for us but cannot just throw out the whole process.” There is a lot of discussion in the hallways of PUCO regarding whether he works for us or for the DMR.
Householder was arrested in July 2020. They stormed Randazzo’s condo on Nov. 17, 2020, the same day FirstEnergy announced the $4.3 million payment to Randazzo (who was not identified in the paper).
In December 2020, the PUCO resurrected the audit and ordered Daymark Energy Advisors to examine how FirstEnergy spent the money.
The Ohio Consumers’ Counsel requested that the PUCO subpoena any draught versions of the final Oxford audit and compel an Oxford employee to testify about it.
Price refused the demands for that last audit earlier this month. “Rather than researching what the Commission truly has authority over investigating,” he added, the Counsel’s reliance on the text message demonstrates its “clear interest in pursuing potential misconduct” confessed by FirstEnergy.
He ordered the auditor to testify before PUCO, but only concerning a previous filing, not the allegedly omitted report.
Daymark’s January audit couldn’t track the DMR funds because FirstEnergy mixed them with income from all 11 utilities. The auditors claimed they couldn’t tell if the money was spent on grid modernization or HB 6 lobbying.
The second audit, Price added, “appears to thoroughly examine whether [FirstEnergy] appropriately utilised the DMR funds.”
The Consumers’ Counsel has subsequently appealed to the five PUCO commissioners, citing the case’s “extraordinary” character. For the whole commission to overturn Price, The Counsel sought the PUCO’s legal director to certify the appeal.
« It is simply incorrect to portray concerns relating to DMR funding as outside the PUCO’s authority.
Nice work Greg.
The subpoenaed papers include the most specific mention of Price working on HB 6 between Householder’s arrest and the raid on Randazzo’s condo.
Deliberations on repealing the law followed the arrests. Randazzo was requested to analyse the decoupling language in HB 6 by a state legislator.
“We did make comments to lessen some of the more unpleasant language,” Randazzo wrote to Scott Elisar, his former law partner and PUCO policy director.
Tim and Greg Price, I believe. [FirstEnergy] and [FirstEnergy Solutions] were having trouble distinguishing between one other. I believe I said it should be deleted.
Most documents are ambiguous about Price’s role. They reveal Price was constantly updated on HB 6’s progress starting on April 12, 2019. In May 2019, PUCO’s legal director Angela Hawkins added Price to an email thread from Randazzo.
“Will make him accessible to assist if needed,” she wrote on May 6, 2019.
Christina O’Keeffe, the director of the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, visited Randazzo on May 20, 2019. The email correspondence included Price and other workers, although it is unclear who attended.
Price, Elisar, and the PUCO’s Statehouse liaison were identified as legislative and legal reviewers for the bill when it passed the House on May 29, 2019. The designation was also noted in a Senate report after the law passed. Price was a “required attendee” for the PUCO on July 15, 2019 and was briefed thereafter.
Another PUCO lawyer analysed HB 6 legislation in late September 2020. The note is for Price and Randazzo.
Brown, a former PUCO Commissioner, criticised the PUCO and called on it to investigate FirstEnergy months after the Householder arrests. Randazzo said Brown misunderstood a 40-year-old regulatory matter involving the PUCO and a natural gas firm. He asked Price and ten other workers for research help to rebut Brown.
Price gave the chairman an outdated news footage on the event.
Thanks Greg, Randazzo remarked.