Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine Stands Behind Aide While She Stays Mum About Bribery Scandal

Laurel Dawson knew about a $4.3 million payment from FirstEnergy to Sam Randazzo

click to enlarge Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at an ODOT press conference - (Photo by Megan Henry, Ohio Capital Journal.)
(Photo by Megan Henry, Ohio Capital Journal.)
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at an ODOT press conference

Gov. Mike DeWine continues to praise and support an aide who he said knew about a $4.3 million payoff by FirstEnergy to DeWine’s pick to lead the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio — the entity that decides how much FirstEnergy can charge customers. The aide knew about the payment, but didn’t tell DeWine until the FBI searched the regulator’s home nearly two years later, the governor’s office says.

Now the aide, Laurel Dawson, isn’t talking. And DeWine’s office won’t say if the governor ever punished her for not telling him of the payment, which is part of a huge bribery and money-laundering scandal that has already sent two to federal prison. 

In defending the conduct of Dawson and DeWine, the governor’s press secretary said law enforcement hadn’t yet called the payment a bribe. That suggests that the governor thought such a payoff was OK in the absence of police stepping in and calling it a crime. 

The press secretary, Dan Tierney, disputed that DeWine even had a role in the case, even though the governor salted his administration with people with ties to FirstEnergy, received campaign support from the utility, met with its two top executives just before taking office, signed the corrupt bailout legislation within hours of its passage, and briefly defended it even after federal indictments were handed up.

“It is ridiculous and patently false to assert the Governor had a role in bribery schemes, either those alleged or already adjudicated in criminal court, that enriched other persons, and no such court case makes any such allegation,” Tierney said in an email.

Links to the governor

Those initial indictments came well over three years ago, when former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, former Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges, and three others were indicted in what federal prosecutors called one of the biggest bribery and money-laundering conspiracies in state history. In a deferred prosecution agreement, FirstEnergy later admitted to paying more than $60 million in bribes in exchange for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout to a subsidiary it was trying to spin off.

Householder and Borges were convicted by a jury last year. The former speaker was sentenced to 20 years in prison and the former chairman to five. Two of the others pleaded guilty and await sentencing, while the third died by suicide.

But it wasn’t until December that the feds indicted Sam Randazzo, DeWine’s pick to head the PUCO, on charges including bribery and wire fraud. Then last month, state authorities indicted Randazzo and former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and former Vice President Michael Dowling, the executives who paid Randazzo $4.3 million just before DeWine nominated Randazzo to be the state’s top utility regulator.

From that perch, Randazzo helped draft and lobbied for the corrupt bailout, while also doing any number of other valuable favors for the Akron-based utility, the indictments allege.

The new indictments brought renewed attention to the role the DeWine administration played in the scandal. The governor appointed Randazzo knowing that he had long been a paid consultant to FirstEnergy, one of the biggest utilities in the state.

Also, Dawson — the chief of staff who waited nearly two years to tell DeWine about the $4.3 million payoff to Randazzo — was married to a former FirstEnergy lobbyist whom the state indictment said had gotten a $10,000 loan from Randazzo a few years before DeWine took office. It’s unknown whether Dawson’s husband ever paid that money back to Randazzo, who’s gotten well over $10 million from FirstEnergy under shady circumstances, according to the state indictment.

In addition to all of that, DeWine made FirsEnergy lobbyist Dan McCarthy his legislative affairs director. While he was still with FirstEnergy, McCarthy set up Partners for Progress, a dark money group that would serve as a conduit for tens of millions that fueled the corrupt bailout. Then as part of the DeWine administration, McCarthy lobbied the legislature to pass the bailout, House Bill 6.

DeWine staunchly defended McCarthy long after the indictments. But evidence presented at last year’s criminal trial indicated that at least some players thought his role in financing the bailout should be kept hidden. Prosecutors presented text messages showing that Dowling, the now-indicted FirstEnergy executive, ordered that McCarthy’s name be kept off a $10 million dark money infusion even after an aide told Dowling that it would violate IRS rules to do so.

Business as usual

DeWine’s office has been highlighting that when Householder and the others were charged, the U.S. Attorney’s office said they hadn’t found evidence that the governor’s office was involved. His spokesman is also pointing out that the state indictment says that the FirstEnergy executives withheld information from the governor.

But when asked about information held back by DeWine’s own staff, the explanations become a little more interesting. In one instance, Tierney even said it would be extraordinary for a chief of staff to tell the governor of a giant payout from a huge utility just as the governor was deciding whether to make the recipient the utility’s top regulator.

“It would be highly unusual for the governor to be made aware of such a payment in the vetting of a cabinet member, especially when it was well known that Randazzo was a paid consultant for FirstEnergy,” Tierney told Cleveland’s WEWS last month.

Actually, the financial relationship between Randazzo and FirstEnergy was far from well known. The state indictment says that Randazzo hid the fact that he was being paid by FirstEnergy from a group of industrial energy users he was serving as general counsel — a clear conflict of interest.

In addition, it wasn’t until 2022 that the Capital Journal obtained a dossier an aide gave DeWine as the governor was considering Randazzo’s appointment. It told of Randazzo’s “opaque and undisclosed” ties to FirstEnergy

Perhaps most tellingly, texts unearthed from court filings by the Capital Journal showed that when a hint of the relationship became public in January 2019, it almost tanked Randazzo’s nomination to the PUCO.

“A bullet grazed the temple,” Dowling told Jones. 

“Forced DeWine/Husted to perform battlefield triage,” Jones responded, referring to Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. “It’s a rough game.” 

Suspicious circumstances

As described in indictments, lawsuits and emails, the sequence of events between Dec. 18, 2018 and Nov. 16, 2020 looks pretty suspicious.

On the first date, Gov.-elect DeWine and Lt. Gov.-elect Husted met for dinner at the Columbus Athletic Club with FirstEnergy CEO Jones and Vice President Dowling. They discussed appointing Randazzo as PUCO chair, the state indictment says.

The executives went from that meeting to Randazzo’s German Village condo. The same evening, Randazzio sent Dowling a text that ended “Total 4,333,333.”

The next day Jones sent Randazzo a text saying he’d pay the money quickly and making it clear that he expected access to Randazzo in the future.

“We’re going to get this handled this year, paid in full, no discount,” the energy executive said. “Don’t forget about us or Hurricane Chuck may show up on your doorstep! Of course, no guarantee he won’t show up sometime anyway.”

Randazzo was paid the money — which FirstEnergy later called a bribe — and on Feb. 4, 2019, DeWine nominated Randazzo to chair the PUCO. In other words, the governor-elect had dinner with the executives the same night they worked out a massive payment to Randazzo, they then made the payment, and then DeWine made Randazzo the chief regulator of their industry seven weeks after the dinner.

What did they know?

What followed was a billion-dollar scandal that is still costing Ohio ratepayers hundreds of millions to prop up two aging coal plants — including one that isn’t even in Ohio.

The bailout law was promoted by the man who headed the agency that was supposed to look out for Ohio ratepayers. It’s the same agency that over the past 15 years has allowed utilities to collect more than $1.5 billion from rate increases that were later ruled to be illegal, but because of the way the orders were written, are non-refundable.

Despite all that, DeWine made a priority to appoint as regulator somebody with connections to the industry, arguing that such a person would have expertise. 

Tierney was asked what the governor-elect discussed with the FirstEnergy executives in late 2018 and whether it was proper to even have such a discussion just as he was deciding who would regulate their business. DeWine’s press secretary said such meetings are par for the course.

“As one of Ohio’s largest employers, it is not unusual for such a dinner or meeting to occur,” Tierney said.

The governor seemed also to be untroubled that FirstEnergy paid Randazzo an amount that is more than two-and-a-half times the average American’s lifetime income in the weeks before he put Randazzo in charge of protecting the average Ohio ratepayer.

“The $4.3 Million payment by FirstEnergy to Randazzo was never alleged to our office to be a bribe until 2021,” Tierney said. “In 2019, and up until 2021, the indictment states the payment was described to our office as a contractual termination payment, not a bribe. Additionally, Governor DeWine knew that Randazzo was a paid consultant of First Energy prior to any disclosure.”

Dawson, who continues to earn $185,000 a year from the taxpayers as a counselor to DeWine, also doesn’t seem to think she owes those taxpayers an explanation as to why she didn’t tell DeWine of Randazzo’s enormous payout until after the FBI raided Randazzo’s condo, The Columbus Dispatch reported last week.

“Ms. Dawson has spoken with law enforcement as a witness,” was the way Tierney put it to the Capital Journal when asked whether DeWine ever admonished her over this lack of disclosure. “Separately from this, she has respectfully declined comment to media.”

Tierney didn’t respond to a question asking whether Dawson was being protected in exchange for her public silence. He then disputed that DeWine has been involved in the scandal at all.

“We would disagree with your comment that the Governor had a role in this case,” Tierney said. “The indictments themselves said he did not and that those indicted specifically withheld information from the administration.”

Originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.
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