Ohio Utilities Regulator Resigns After FBI Raid And Explosive SEC Report
On Thursday night, First Energy, the embattled Ohio power company, released its quarterly investors report. Deep in the footnotes, it revealed an improper $4 million payment made in early 2019. That payment appears to have been made to Sam Randazzo, though the filing doesn’t mention him by name. Randazzo was Ohio’s chief utility regulator, until he resigned Friday morning. First Energy has been at the heart of the ongoing HB6 corruption scandal, and on Monday, FBI agents raided Randazzo’s home.
But, even before this week's raid, FirstEnergy's report, and his resignation, environmental groups have had an ax to grind with Randazzo.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine appointed Randazzo to his position as chairman of the Public Utility Commission in February 2019. After the raid earlier this week, the governor came to Randazzo’s aid:
“Look the FBI many times will indicate when someone is a target. They have not indicated that he is a target. I have no reason to think he is a target." DeWine said, "we’re waiting for additional information quite candidly. I hired him. I think he’s a good person. If there’s evidence to the contrary then we’ll act accordingly.”
But environmental groups in Ohio have been calling for Randazzo’s removal long before this latest scandal. They say that in his role as a utility commissioner he has had a chilling effect on renewable energy development in Ohio.
“I don't think it's too far to say that he crusaded against renewable energy and energy efficiency and on behalf of fossil fuels. That was a point of pride for him, actually," says Rachael Belz, Executive Director of Ohio Citizen Action—the state’s largest consumer and environmental organization.
“We have had a campaign for almost the last six months calling on Governor DeWine to get rid of him, in large part because he favors companies like FirstEnergy and other large utilities,” she said.
A number of national and statewide environmental advocacy groups sent Mike DeWine a joint letter in February 2019. They opposed Randazzo’s nomination to the utility council. They pointed to his history of lobbying on behalf of utilities and traditional energy companies that opposed adoption of renewable energy.
The Sierra Club Ohio Chapter was one of the organizations that signed the letter. Neil Waggoner is with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.
“He routinely was active in public utility commission cases, trying to fight programs that reduce energy waste and save customers money." Waggoner said, "He was routinely engaged at in the Ohio legislature and working with opponents of clean energy and energy efficiency to try to weaken Ohio's clean energy and energy efficiency laws.”
Environmentalists point to a few recent energy projects that they say demonstrate Randazzo is putting his finger on the scales in favor of fossil fuel companies. In 2019, under Randazzo’s leadership, the Utility Commission rejected a proposal to publicly finance a large solar farm in southern Ohio.
Randazzo also supported a controversial proposal to build a natural gas plant at Ohio State University. He claimed that opponents of the gas plant were “bullying” the university.
“That is not an independent or unbiased regulator." Waggoner said, "That is somebody who is interjecting their own personal opinion on what they think are better sources of energy and what they think should be going forward.”
It’s still unclear what Randazzo’s connection is to the larger HB6 investigation. That scandal links former speaker of the house Larry Householder to bribes from coal and nuclear companies. Householder strongarmed the controversial bill through the state legislature. And now, Ohio’s ratepayers are on the hook for the bailout, to the tune of nearly 1 billion dollars.
Waggoner says that with the HB6 scandal, people from across the U.S. are wondering what is happening in Ohio.
“I get questions, people are calling, texting me, saying what is happening in Ohio? What is going on? And my response is, I don't know. It is just a ridiculous moment." He said, "It is a complete failure in leadership that we do not have legislators and the governor really moving aggressively to repeal the House Bill 6 and look into exactly what is happening with the FBI and Sam Randazzo.”
As of right now, the controversial House Bill 6 is still alive.
Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.