Timing key in consulting deal between FirstEnergy, regulator

FILEThis undated file photo provided by the Ohio Governor's office shows former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo. State and federal officials are investigating whether Randazzo, the utility lawyer-turned-regulator who has since resigned, helped usher through a string of legislative and regulatory victories worth well over $1 billion over time to energy giant FirstEnergy Corp. and its subsidiaries, in exchange for cash. (AP Photo/Ohio Governor's office via AP, File)
FILEThis undated file photo provided by the Ohio Governor's office shows former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo. State and federal officials are investigating whether Randazzo, the utility lawyer-turned-regulator who has since resigned, helped usher through a string of legislative and regulatory victories worth well over $1 billion over time to energy giant FirstEnergy Corp. and its subsidiaries, in exchange for cash. (AP Photo/Ohio Governor's office via AP, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Shortly before a utility lawyer and lobbyist was appointed Ohio’s top regulator of electric and power generating companies, he received $4.3 million from top executives at one of the companies whose fortunes would soon be in his hands.

In the months that followed, that company — Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. — won a string of legislative and regulatory victories worth well over $1 billion over time to the company and its subsidiaries, including a nuclear plant bailout that's at the center of a $60 million federal bribery probe. The bulk of that tab was to be paid by the state’s electricity customers.

What investigators at the state and federal levels now want to know is whether Sam Randazzo, the utility lawyer-turned-regulator who has since resigned, helped FirstEnergy in exchange for millions.

The payment to a future state official meeting Randazzo's description received from then-executives of the utilities giant in January 2019 is the subject of an ongoing audit by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which Randazzo chaired from April 2019 to last November, when he resigned under a cloud.

Corporate filings from November differed in the descriptions provided to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of the payment made by fired top officials. FirstEnergy's board of directors fired CEO Chuck Jones and two other executives weeks earlier for having “violated certain FirstEnergy policies and its code of conduct.”

FirstEnergy's quarterly earnings report said the payment terminated a “purported consulting contract” dating back to 2013. Recent sleuthing by Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewable energy watchdog group, unearthed a disclosure in lending documents that suggested Randazzo was paid for future work, creating questions on what actions he might have taken as PUCO chair on behalf of FirstEnergy.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young declined to address differences between the disclosures. Reached by The Associated Press, Randazzo declined comment.

CEO Chuck Keiper of NOPEC, Ohio's largest nonprofit energy aggregator, called revelations in the filings “shocking.” He said in a statement that they raise questions of “whether there was something nefarious going on” at the PUCO.