After bailing out AEP’s plants, lawmakers returned its campaign checks, records show

The American Electric Power building in downtown Columbus. Photo by Jake Zuckerman.

Records show Ohio state politicians refunded nearly $50,000 in recent months to a political action committee of American Electric Power, a beneficiary of a massive coal-fired power plant bailout via scandal-tainted legislation enacted last year.

Nine state senators and two House representatives, all Republican, returned a total of $19,500 in campaign contributions to an AEP political arm between October and December, campaign finance records show.

Additionally, Gov. Mike DeWine in January returned a $10,000 check to the utility, which sells electricity to about 1.4 million Ohioans.

The utility’s PAC also reported contributing nearly $20,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee July 9, which was returned Sept. 24.

DeWine said he returned the money to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Several senators said they didn’t return the checks, but they were lost or delayed in the mail, possibly due to widespread delays from the U.S. Postal Service last year.

Campaign finance records for AEP’s Committee for a Responsible Government list most of the expenditures going out in September and refunding in December.

The refunds came more than a year after DeWine signed into law House Bill 6, a sweeping energy package that codified an estimated $700 million ratepayer-funded bailout over 10 years to two coal plants in Ohio and Indiana owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation.

AEP is the largest shareholder of OVEC, owning 43% of the corporation, according to OVEC’s last annual report. Other utility companies like Buckeye Power (18%), Duke Energy (9%), Dayton Power and Light Company (4.9%) and others own the rest.

HB 6 also bailed out two nuclear plants owned at the time by a subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp. Federal prosecutors accused former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, of secretly controlling a dark money entity that received nearly $61 million from FirstEnergy. Householder allegedly used these funds to help his allies win statehouse seats, engineer the passage of HB 6, and enrich himself personally.

Neither FirstEnergy nor AEP have been charged with a crime, though FirstEnergy recently told shareholders it is in talks with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding what’s known as a “deferred prosecution agreement.” Householder pleaded not guilty and awaits trial. Three alleged co-conspirators have pleaded guilty, including Householder’s longtime political strategist, Jeff Longstreth.

Shortly before most of the lawmakers returned their checks, Sam Randazzo resigned from his chairmanship of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio after news broke in November of FBI agents searching his home and seizing boxes of materials.

Days later, FirstEnergy disclosed to the SEC that former company officials violated FirstEnergy policies related to a “payment of approximately $4 million” to an entity associated with a person who was later “appointed to a full-time role as an Ohio government official directly involved in regulating” FirstEnergy.

The officeholders who responded to inquiries offered different explanations regarding the returned checks.

“This donation was made during the period the governor was considering the PUCO chairperson appointment,” said Dan Tierney, a DeWine spokesman. “The donation was returned, out of an abundance of caution, so as to avoid any appearance of influence during that period. The sole issue was the timing of the donation.”

Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, said he neither knew of nor returned any AEP check, and guessed it was lost somewhere along the way. Senate Majority Leader Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, made similar remarks. However, he said the refund has nothing to do with HB 6 or OVEC.

“I’m 100% in favor of OVEC,” Schuring said. “Unabashedly in favor of OVEC.”

A campaign spokeswoman for Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, said the campaign only received his check in January, at which point it bounced.

AEP spokeswoman Tammy Ridout said the checks were canceled because they were delivered past their date.

“These were unfortunate circumstances related to COVID,” she said. “Most of the checks were delayed in the mail and had expired after 90 days. The check to Gov. Mike DeWine was related to a business community event that was postponed due to the pandemic.”

However, after reviewing DeWine’s statement, Ridout said the DeWine campaign declined the check due to “pending or recently filed agency appointments.”

Despite the refunds, AEP contributed $88,000 to Ohio politicians in 2020, mostly Republicans, who control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office. Between 2015 and 2019, AEP, through two corporate PACs, contributed an average of $191,000 per year to Ohio politicians.

Alongside its direct contributions, AEP donated more substantially through a 501(c)(4) entity, Empowering Ohio’s Economy, of which AEP is the sole funder.

Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed at least $700,000 to Generation Now, which pleaded guilty to its role in the HB 6 scandal, between 2017 and 2019, tax records show.

It also contributed $200,000 to the Coalition for Growth and Opportunity in the same time frame. The coalition supported a slate of Householder-backed candidates. All told, Empowering Ohio’s Economy spent more than $5 million between 2017 and 2019, the bulk of it going toward other political dark money groups.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, who received $5,000 from AEP in September and refunded it in October, did not respond to comment.

A spokesman for Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who received and returned a $2,500 check, referred inquiries to the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

Other lawmakers who returned checks include Sens. Stephanie Kunze, Louie Blessing, Theresa Gavarone,  Terry Johnson, Michael Rulli, and Rep. Brian Baldridge. They all did not respond to inquiries.

The AEP refunds are the second episode of campaign checks from Ohio utilities that, one way or another, never matured into finalized contributions amid the HB 6 scandal.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported last year that First Energy’s PAC wrote checks between July 6 and July 16 worth $158,000 to a spread of candidates. The company reported the contributions to elections officials but didn’t end up sending the checks. A FirstEnergy spokeswoman said when Householder was arrested July 21, the utility opted to hold onto the checks to assess the situation.

An earlier version of this report identified OVEC’s coal plants as mines.

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