Commentary

To reclaim Ohioans’ historical power, First Energy’s corporate charter should be revoked

March 2, 2022 3:20 am

FirstEnergy’s headquarters in Akron. Source: Google Maps.

The illegalities connected to FirstEnergy Corporation in its bribery scheme to pass House Bill 6 (HB 6) continue to surface, most recently its improper use of ratepayer money to fund dark money efforts totaling $70.9 million.

Several individuals have already pleaded guilty for their role in the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history. Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, the leader of the network charged with overseeing the bribery scheme, and another co-defendant maintain their innocence and await trial. Everyone found guilty of corrupting the political process needs to be held fully accountable for their actions, which should include significant jail time and an end to their political and lobbying careers. 

What about FirstEnergy Corporation, which has admitted to paying tens of millions of dollars to Generation Now, the front group controlled by Householder? Those funds didn’t come out of the pockets of FirstEnergy executives. They were company funds — funneled from FirstEnergy’s treasury to the Householder-led network.

Paying fines and replacing a few company fall guys doesn’t come close to the damage done to our representative government, economy and environment by defrauding Ohio taxpayers across Ohio of $1 billion to bailout two antiquated nuclear power plants — rather than invest in renewable energy — and ruthlessly shutting down the grassroots democratic referendum campaign to overturn HB 6. 

Independent of further federal action and court cases against responsible individuals, Ohio Attorney General David Yost can and should commence charter revocation (called “quo warranto”) proceedings against FirstEnergy, a legal creation licensed in the state of Ohio as provided by Ohio Revised Code § 2733.02 to § 2733.39. Several Ohio groups are calling for this action, a process that would dissolve the company.

Quo warranto is a legal proceeding challenging the continued right of an individual or corporation to possess governmental privilege, be it an office in the case of an individual or charter in the case of a corporation.

Corporations should serve the public good. They receive their charter from the government, which grants them certain privileges and powers. Corporations found to break the law and do so with intent should not simply be fined, as FirstEnergy Corporation has been, but have their charters revoked or terminated. Every day we see that monetary fines do not change criminal corporate behavior. 

Revocation of corporate charter was once common in Ohio in response to corporations acting beyond their authority as defined in their corporate charters. Quo warranto proceedings were once used routinely as a democratic tool by Ohio legislatures and courts to affirm the sovereign power of We the People over corporations, which are, after all, creations of government.

The most well-known quo warranto case in Ohio history involved the efforts to revoke the charter of the Standard Oil Company, the most powerful U.S. corporation of the time, for forming a trust. In the 1892 argument to revoke its franchise, a Republican predecessor of Yost, Ohio Attorney General David Watson, argued:

“Where a corporation, either directly or indirectly, submits to the domination of an agency unknown to the statute, or identifies itself with and unites in carrying out an agreement whose performance is injurious to the public, it thereby offends against the law of its creation and forfeits all right to its franchises, and judgment of ouster should be entered against it.”

Charter revocation is seen by some as a “radical” act when in reality it only follows a strong historical precedent already set in our state. The truly ”radical” act is a rogue corporation blatantly trampling on our democratic process.

FirstEnergy has no inherent ‘right’ to exist. We the People possess the ultimate authority and power to hold it accountable. Revoking its corporate charter is the only solution to ultimately protect the health, safety and welfare of Ohioans and democracy in Ohio. It’s an equivalent democratic response to the scale of the company’s anti-democratic actions.

FirstEnergy has forfeited its public privilege to continue. Electricity can be supplied publicly, as in many states, or by cooperatives rather than private business corporations.

Commencing charter revocation action against FirstEnergy Corporation affirms that We the People and our elected representatives possess and should utilize this democratic tool to ensure that corporations are ultimately subordinate to us. It also will serve as a deterrent to others connected to corporations who feel they can act unlawfully, yet be protected by the corporate legal shield. 

Attorney General Yost, like his Republican predecessor, needs to take immediate action to protect people, the environment and what few authentic democratic rights We the People of Ohio still retain.

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Greg Coleridge

Greg Coleridge is a democracy educator and organizer who lives in Cleveland Heights. He’s the former Director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization) and elected national board member of Common Cause.

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