Former Ohio Utilities Chairman Indicted in Bribery Scandal
CINCINNATI — A federal grand jury has charged the former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio with taking $4.3 million in bribes from one of the nation’s largest investor-owned utility companies.
Sam Randazzo surrendered at the federal court in Cincinnati on Monday after being charged in an 11-count indictment that was returned on Wednesday, Nov. 29, the U.S. Justice Department said in a press release.
He was scheduled to make his first court appearance later in the day. If convicted on all charges, Randazzo faces up to 20 years in prison.
“[This] 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,” FBI special agent in charge J. William Rivers said in a written statement.
Local media reports have tied the indictment on bribery and embezzlement charges to a larger $60 million bribery scheme related to the legislative bailout of two Ohio nuclear power plants that has already resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for a former state House speaker.
The ex-state House speaker, Larry Householder, was sentenced in June for orchestrating the scheme in what is now considered the biggest political corruption scandal in Ohio’s history.
Also sentenced in June was lobbyist Matt Borges, a former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, who received a sentence of five years in prison.
Three other individuals were indicted on racketeering charges in connection with the scheme — lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Jeffrey Longstreth, a top Householder political strategist, both of whom pleaded guilty in October 2020, and statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark, who pleaded not guilty before dying by suicide in March 2021.
A dark money group used to funnel FirstEnergy money to the former House speaker, Generation Now, also pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in February 2021.
According to Rivers and Kenneth Parker, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, who led the investigation, a portion of the $60 million was used to get Householder’s chosen Republican candidates elected to the state House in 2018, so they would then support his bid to be elected speaker in January 2019.
The remaining money was used to win passage of a now infamous energy bill, House Bill 6, and to conduct what authorities described as a multimillion-dollar dirty tricks campaign to prevent a repeal referendum from reaching the ballot.
Passed in July 2019, House Bill 6 increased electricity rates on the state’s consumers and provided that money as a $150 million per year subsidy for the Perry and Davis–Besse nuclear power plants, while also subsidizing coal-fired power plants in the state while reducing subsidies for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
According to the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, since the bill went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, the utility’s rate payers have subsidized coal-fired power plants in the state to the tune of over $222 million.
FirstEnergy admitted to its role in the bribery scheme as part of a July 2021 deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The company agreed to pay $230 million in penalties and to accomplish a long list of reforms within three years in order to avoid being criminally prosecuted on a federal conspiracy charge.
As for Randazzo, prosecutors allege that in November 2019, he included language in a utility commission opinion intended to address an issue FirstEnergy believed would become a concern in 2024.
“Stock is gonna get hit with Ohio 2024. Need Sam to get rid of the ‘Ohio 2024 hole,’” an energy executive text message read. Another messaged they had said he’d spoken to Sam and he “(t)old me 2024 issue will be handled next Thursday.”
A week later, prosecutors said, the decision included language alleviating the 2024 issue.
Randazzo resigned in November 2020 after FBI agents searched his Columbus townhome and FirstEnergy revealed in security filings that it had paid him $4.3 million for his future help at the commission — a month before Republican Gov. Mike DeWine nominated him as Ohio’s top utility regulator.
“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 in a statement. “Through the indictment unsealed … we seek to hold Randazzo accountable for his alleged illegal activities.”
Randazzo is facing prosecution on one count of conspiring to commit travel act bribery and honest services wire fraud; one count of wire fraud; two counts of travel act bribery; two counts of honest services wire fraud; and five counts of making illegal monetary transactions.
It is alleged that Randazzo received the bribe money from the energy company through his consulting business, Sustainability Funding Alliance of Ohio, Inc., which was registered in Ohio in March 2010.
SFA filings name Randazzo as the president and sole representative of the business and lists Randazzo’s home address as the business address.
In announcing Monday’s developments, the prosecutors stressed that an indictment merely contains allegations, and defendants are presumed innocent unless proven guilty in a court of law.