FirstEnergy Solutions said it needed a government bailout to continue operating. It still had hundreds of thousands of dollars available to donate to Ohio politicians.
The Akron-based energy company spent years working toward what would become House Bill 6 — passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in the summer of 2019.
The effort to pass that bill spurred a federal investigation that led to the Tuesday morning arrest of Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder and four of his political associates.
Federal investigators have alleged Householder organized a bribery scheme to accept $61 million from FirstEnergy in return for passing HB 6 and enriching Householder and his allies in the process.
No other state legislator besides Householder has been charged with a crime, and U.S. Attorney David DeVillers of the Southern District of Ohio Tuesday would not identify any others that may still be under investigation.
A review of publicly-available campaign finance data shows FirstEnergy’s political action committee (PAC) has contributed money to politicians throughout the Ohio Statehouse. The company has donated generously to Republicans and Democrats alike, from leaders to backbenchers.
Between 2017 and when HB 6 was signed into law in July 2019, FirstEnergy donated nearly $375,000 to 54 different state lawmakers. Of those 54, 41 voted for HB 6, just 11 voted against and two did not cast a ballot.
Additionally, FirstEnergy made initial contributions to a dozen other lawmakers after they voted for HB 6.
The company saved most of its largest donations for the bill’s sponsors.
State law sets campaign contribution limits for PACs donating to individual candidates at around $13,300 per reporting period. Many of the top HB 6 backers received donations close to this amount.
The bill was sponsored by Republican state Reps. Jamie Callendar of Concord and Shane Wilkin of Lynchburg in April 2019. It passed the Ohio House of Representatives in May; the Ohio Senate (with amendments) in July; then the House concurred with those changes a week later.
Callender received a max donation of $12,700 from FirstEnergy’s PAC in 2018. He’s since received $6,000 from the organization.
Wilkin received $10,000 from the PAC in 2018, another $3,000 during the summer of 2019 and $2,500 more that fall after the bill was signed into law.
The bill had nine Republican cosponsors in the Ohio House. Three of them took in five-figure donations from FirstEnergy in 2018: Jon Cross of Kenton, Brett Hudson Hillyer of Uhrichsville and Anthony DeVitis of Green. DeVitis, the assistant majority floor leader, took in the most cash: $20,415 in 2018, another $7,500 the same month as the Ohio House’s first vote on HB 6 and $1,000 later in 2019.
Other state representatives received FirstEnergy contributions in the few years leading up to them sponsoring and voting for HB 6: Bill Reineke of Tiffin ($1,500), Bill Seitz of Cincinnati, the majority floor leader ($7,000), Nino Vitale of Urbana ($2,500), Don Jones of Freeport ($500) and Dick Stein of Norwalk ($2,000).
All 11 House sponsors and cosponsors received at least one donation from FirstEnergy following the passage of HB 6.
A similar pattern followed in the Ohio Senate, which saw four cosponsors: John Eklund of Munson Twp., Theresa Gavarone of Bowling Green, Sandra Williams of Cleveland and Lou Terhar of Green Twp. Williams is the only Democratic cosponsor of HB 6; Terhar later resigned in 2019 after the vote.
Eklund brought in $9,500 from FirstEnergy’s PAC in the two years leading up to HB 6 and another $2,500 later in 2019.
Gavarone received $1,500 in 2018, $1,000 in May 2019 and has taken in $3,500 more in 2020.
Williams, a four-term legislator in the Ohio House before being elected to the Senate in 2014, has been a long-time recipient of FirstEnergy campaign cash. The assistant minority whip took in $10,000 in 2017 and a few thousand more in late 2019.
Terhar received $5,000 in 2016, $3,500 in 2018 and $500 more two weeks before the Senate’s vote.
Campaign records show many other representatives and senators who voted for HB 6 (but did not serve as a sponsor) received FirstEnergy money.
In the House, for example, nine Democrats broke with their party to support HB 6. Five of them received FirstEnergy donations in the year leading up to the vote.
- Rep. Michael Sheehy of Toledo ($500 in 2018)
- Rep. John Patterson of Jefferson ($500 in 2018)
- Rep. Jack Cera of Bellaire ($1,000 in 2018)
- Rep. John Rogers of Mentor-on-the-Lake ($500 in 2017, $500 in 2018)
- Rep. Tavia Galonski of Akron ($1,500 in 2018, $500 in 2019)
Three of the four others received donations after voting in favor of HB 6: Reps. Thomas West of Canton ($2,500 later in 2019); Lisa Sobecki of Toledo ($1,500 in 2020) and Terrence Upchurch of Cleveland ($1,000 later in 2019, $2,500 in 2020).
Just three Senate Democrats broke with their party to vote for HB 6. Among them were Williams and Sen. Kenny Yuko, of Richmond Heights, the chamber’s minority leader. Yuko brought in $1,500 from FirstEnergy in 2018 and another $1,000 a month before the vote.
Dozens of Republican “yes” votes in the House and Senate received contributions in the years preceding and following HB 6’s passage.
But the most money from FirstEnergy — of either party — went to Householder. As a representative, he received $7,500 from the PAC in 2017 and nearly $18,000 in 2018. As Speaker, he received a max donation of $13,292 in November 2019 after HB 6 passed.
In addition to specific candidates, the company donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to both political parties and to various caucuses.
Besides campaign contributions, the company spent millions of dollars to advertise and lobby in favor of this legislative effort, cleveland.com and other outlets have reported.
Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.