FirstEnergy raises more questions about $4M consulting payment to Ohio regulator

Credit: Ron Schwane

Credit: Ron Schwane

Facing investigations on multiple fronts, Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. told financial analysts Thursday that it is taking steps to rehabilitate its reputation and emerge as a stronger, more transparent company.

In filings made Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, FirstEnergy said its internal investigation found transactions — some dating back a decade — that lacked documentation or were improperly accounted for.

Among the flagged transactions is a $4 million payment made in early 2019 to end a consulting agreement with someone who subsequently was appointed as an Ohio utility regulator. The payment was disclosed to the SEC in November.

This week FirstEnergy used stronger language to describe the “purported” consulting agreement, which started in 2013. “FirstEnergy believes that payments under the consulting agreement may have been for purposes other than those represented within the consulting agreement. The matter is a subject of the ongoing internal investigation related to the government investigations,” the company said in filings.

The consultant isn’t named in the filings, but energy consultant and attorney Sam Randazzo was appointed as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio by Gov. Mike DeWine in early 2019. After the FBI searched his condo and FirstEnergy made public the $4 million payment in November 2020, Randazzo resigned from the PUCO.

FirstEnergy Chief Executive Steve Strah told Wall Street analysts on Thursday that the company ceased making political contributions, including contributions to 501(c)4 groups that are not required to disclose their donors, and is evaluating how to move forward.

Partners for Progress, a nonprofit linked to FirstEnergy Corp., poured more than $13 million into Ohio political groups in 2019, according to IRS documents.

“You can count on us not contributing to any 501(c)4 that is politically focused,” Strah said. He pledged that FirstEnergy’s future legislative and political advocacy will include more oversight and more disclosure.

Partners for Progress has not disclosed its 2020 activities.

“We have taken the approach from the beginning that cooperating with folks at DOJ and SEC — and full cooperation — is the right approach,” said Chris Pappas, executive director of the FirstEnergy Board of Directors. “...I would say the cooperation is just one of the cornerstones of the shift and change in this company that Steve and others are driving.”

Multiple government agencies are investigating FirstEnergy Corp:

U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation: Federal prosecutors allege that utility companies funneled more than $60 million through nonprofit groups to elect Republican Larry Householder as Ohio House speaker, who in turn helped pass and defend a $1.3 billion bailout bill. Prosecutors didn’t specifically name FirstEnergy and its former affiliate FirstEnergy Solutions but both companies have said they are cooperating with the investigation. Householder and four others were arrested. Two have pleaded guilty. Householder and two other men have pleaded not guilty to federal racketeering charges.

Securities and Exchange Commission: The SEC opened an investigation in August into possible violations of securities laws.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: Investigators gave notice to FirstEnergy on Jan. 21, 2021, to preserve and maintain all documents and information related to an ongoing audit.

Public Utilities Commission of Ohio: The PUCO is examining FirstEnergy’s political and charitable spending, auditing the corporation and ordering the company to submit to a rate case.

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