Ohio AG investigates new allegations in fight over energy bill referendum



Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is investigating new allegations that people circulating petitions for a statewide referendum on a controversial energy bill are being offered cash to quit the campaign and to sell signed petitions to the opposing side.

It’s the latest chapter in a costly, contentious fight over House Bill 6, which was signed into law in July. It mandates Ohio’s 4.8 million utility customers pay monthly fees to bailout aging nuclear power plants owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions and two coal-fired plants owned by the Ohio Valley Electricity Corp. The bailouts add up to more than $1 billion.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, which faces an Oct. 21 deadline to collect 265,744 valid voter signatures, alleges that opponents of their campaign have offered their circulators as much as $10,000 to quit and one of their petition circulating vendors was offered $100,000 to pull out.

On Saturday, opponents of the referendum went door to door at a Columbus hotel where petition circulators were staying and offered to buy petitions that had already been signed, according to Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts.

Buying or selling a petition is a fifth degree felony, under state law.

Opponents of the referendum said their employees aren’t engaged in such activity.

Generation Now, a dark money group backing House Bill 6, hired FieldWorks to discourage voters from signing the pro-referendum petition.

Another dark money group, Ohioans for Energy Security, is running more than $3-million in TV ads alleging the Chinese are behind the referendum effort and paying people to circulate an alternative petition that opposes ‘foreign ownership of our electric grid.’

“Generation Now agrees with Attorney General Yost that FieldWorks staffers in the field should not intimidate petition circulators or any citizens they encounter. Field staffers have been instructed repeatedly to act appropriately and generally it appears they are. One staffer was fired after misbehavior was documented and FieldWorks will follow up on any other documented incidents,” Generation Now spokesman Curt Steiner said in a written statement.

Steiner said FieldWorks has not been authorized to make cash offers.

Ohioans for Energy Security spokesman Carlo LoParo said “That’s not the type of activity we engage in.”

Related: Ohioans flooded with ads as battle heats up over effort to repeal energy law

House Bill 6 was unveiled in April by House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, a vociferous advocate for taking steps to help FirstEnergy Solutions keep open the two nuclear power plants along Lake Erie.

Householder said he opposes the referendum, arguing that lawmakers gave the bill a thorough vetting.

The story of how the bill became a law is extraordinary.

An analysis by the Energy and Policy Institute, which opposed HB6, found that utilities benefiting from the new subsidies donated $1.65 million to Ohio politicians and parties since 2017, including $322,777 to House members who voted in favor of the bill. Money flowed to the campaigns of the Big Three political leaders: Householder, $67,416; Senate President Larry Obhof, $24,300; Gov. Mike DeWine, $57,708, plus another $20,000 to his inauguration events.

More than 400 lobbyists reported that they weighed in on the bill, according to state lobbying reports, including 20 hired by FirstEnergy, FirstEnergy Solutions and the FES bondholders group.

Generation Now spent $9.5 million on ads to sway the public and lawmakers in favor of HB6, according to an ad tracking service. Lined up against HB6 were environmental groups, consumer advocates, natural gas interests and free market think tanks. Opponents of the bill spent nearly $2 million against it.

Related: Big money backs HB6, consumer groups oppose it

When it came time for the final vote on the bill, legislative leaders requested — and later canceled — use of the state-owned plane to fetch lawmakers from Chicago.

Related: Plans canceled to send state plane to pick up lawmakers for key vote

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts said it is confident it’ll collect enough signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

Ohioans for Energy Security’s LoParo doubts that. “They’re scrambling. They’re hiring people who have questionable reputations and criminal convictions and they’re throwing out crazy allegations.”

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