Analysis: Bribery scandal proves dark money pollutes Ohio politics 2023

It is difficult to imagine how the utility rescue at the center of a vast bribery and money laundering investigation could have survived without the more than $60 million in bribes that kept it alive.

And while FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones claimed in text exchanges that the law would benefit “Bob and Betty Buckeye,” it was evident that he did not want Bob and Betty to know that his business was behind it. The funding channel he employed, 501(c)(4) “dark money” organizations, are not required to identify their contributors.

Hence, if federal law enforcement had not intervened, the public would likely have never heard that FirstEnergy itself paid around 17 cents on the dollar for the billion-dollar ratepayer rescue that former House Speaker Larry Householder orchestrated for the firm.

This Monday, a jury found Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges guilty of racketeering in the case. Householders received around $500,000 in personal benefits. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black has not yet rendered a verdict, but they each face a maximum of 20 years in jail.

Jones and other former FirstEnergy officials have denied any misconduct and have not been indicted. When Householder and Borges were found guilty by a jury on Thursday, U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker refused to comment on who, if anybody, would be arrested next in connection with the incident.

In July 2020, however, Parker’s predecessor was quick to discover a major offender: the tens of millions of utility dollars that passed via 501(c)(4) organizations founded solely for the goal of concealing the source of the funds. This money was then utilized to sponsor a dishonest and deceptive campaign so that an uncompetitive corporation could increase prices for customers who had no other option than to purchase their goods.

It was hardly exactly a victory for the free market.

As he announced the charges of Householder, Borges, and three others, former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers stated, “I don’t see how (the conspiracy) could have possible occurred” if not for the abuse of 501(c)(4) dark money organizations.

According to federal law, these groups should be for “social welfare,” but DeVillers did not see any such activity.

“Not one penny was allocated to any social initiative,” he stated.

In light of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, which for the first time permitted unrestricted direct corporate spending in elections, the usage of such funds has increased. Former President Barack Obama told the judges face-to-face that the decision would “open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend unlimited amounts of money on our elections.”

In Ohio, the situation deteriorated to the point that, by 2020, Householder was collaborating with Ohio utilities on a plan to surreptitiously utilize their funds to remain in power for the foreseeable future and, presumably, continue to do their bidding.

There are, however, more parties to blame for the recent events in Ohio and elsewhere, according to government watchdogs. Congress and the majority of state legislatures have never enacted legislation mandating the transparency that the majority of judges who voted in support of Citizens United deemed essential for combating corruption.

Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, stated, “We had the chance immediately following Citizens United to improve transparency, but we did not.” “As a result, political insiders now use money that is shielded from public scrutiny, which harms voters.”

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