State And Regional

Former state utility regulator indicted on bribery, embezzlement

CINCINNATI — A former top utility regulator in Ohio surrendered Monday in connection to a $60 million bribery scheme that is connected to a legislative bailout for two Ohio nuclear power plants.

This has already resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for former state House speaker, Larry Householder.

Former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Samuel Randazzo, 74, of Columbus, self-surrendered Monday after he was charged in an 11-count indictment, according to U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker’s office.

“Today’s indictment outlines an alleged scheme in which a public regulatory official ignored the Ohio consumers he was responsible for protecting, instead taking a bribe from an energy company seeking favors. The FBI will remain vigilant in investigating allegations of corruption at all levels of government and hold those who violate the law accountable for their actions,” FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge J. William Rivers said.

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According to the spokesperson for Parker’s office, the specific charges Randazzo faces include:

  • One count of conspiring to commit travel act bribery and honest services wire fraud
  • Two counts of Travel Act bribery
  • Two counts of honest services wire fraud
  • One count of wire fraud
  • Five counts of making illegal monetary transactions

If Randazzo is convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

“Public officials – whether elected or appointed – are tasked with upholding the highest level of integrity in their duties and responsibilities. Such service to the public must be selfless, not selfish,” Parker said. “Through the indictment unsealed today, we seek to hold Randazzo accountable for his alleged illegal activities.”

Randazzo served as the PUCO chairman from April 2019 to November 2020. He resigned in November after FBI agents searched his Columbus townhome and FirstEnergy, according to security findings.

The same findings said bribery payments of $4.3 million were made for his help at the commission, which occurred one month before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine nominated him as Ohio’s top utility regulator, according to the AP.

In 2019, the Ohio Environmental Council and partners issued a letter to DeWine, opposing the appointment of Randazzo. In a statement issued Monday, Managing Director of Energy Policy for OEC Nolan Rutschilling said, “This latest indictment in the ongoing utility corruption scandal is not surprising.”

“We await more information regarding the former Chair’s dealings, but one thing is clear: the actions of greedy utility companies and corrupt state officials have hurt Ohioans. Ohioans deserve comprehensive action to ensure the PUCO does its job to hold utilities accountable and move us toward a reliable, sustainable energy grid, rather than letting companies continue to take advantage of Ohioans,” Rutschilling said.

Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Maureen Willis said the indictment, “is an important step to bring justice to Ohio utility consumers.”

“It underscores the need for near-term reform of the PUCO selection process that led to his appointment as Chair of the PUCO. OCC’s calls for reform so far have gone unanswered. Ohioans deserve better from the public officials in this state,” Willis said.

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Randazzo’s indictment marks the latest development in what has been said to be the largest corruption case in Ohio history.

In June, former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the scheme, according to the AP.

Former chair of the Ohio Republican Party and lobbyist Matt Borges was sentenced to five years.

Three others were indicted by the U.S. attorney’s office in Cincinnati on racketeering charges in July 2020.

A top political strategist for Householder, Jeffrey Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes both pleaded guilty in October 2020, according to the AP.

Statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark was the third person arrested and pleaded not guilty before committing suicide in March 2021.

Generation Now, which is the group that funneled the money from FirstEnergy, also pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in February 2021, according to the AP.

All of the accused were said to have used the $60 million in FirstEnergy cash to get Householder’s Republican candidates elected to the House in 2018. The group then hoped to get Householder elected to speaker in January 2019.

This money was used to help pass an energy bill, House Bill 6, and conduct a $38 million campaign to prevent a repeal referendum from reaching the ballot, according to the AP.

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Prosecutors alleged that Randazzo included language in a PUCO opinion and order to address an issue that FirstEnergy had coming up in 2024, according to a spokesperson from Parker’s office.

“Stock is gonna get hit with Ohio 2024. Need Sam to get rid of the ‘Ohio 2024 hole,’” a text message from an energy executive read.

“I spoke with Sam today. Told me the 2024 issue will be handled next Thursday,” another executive messaged in part.

The following week, the PUCO decision included language that diminished the 2024 issue, the spokesperson said.

In March 2020, a text message from an executive said that Randazzo, “will get it done for us but cannot just jettison all process.”

The message goes on to reference specific official actions and continues, “…a lot of talk going on in the halls of PUCO about does he work there or for us? He’ll move it as fast as he can,” the spokesperson said.

As part of the 2021 deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, FirstEnergy admitted to its role in the scheme. The energy company agreed to pay $230 million in penalties to accomplish a list of reforms over three years to avoid being criminally prosecuted on federal conspiracy charges, according to the AP.

Current FirstEnergy CEO and President Steven Strah signed a statement of facts that lays out, in detail, the involvement of Jones, Dowling, Randazzo, and others in the bribery scheme, according to the AP.

Randazzo’s attorneys call the claims contained in the document, “hearsay” and that they are designed to keep the company out of legal trouble.

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