A state judge who oversees utility cases withdrew himself Friday from four cases involving legislation now at the center of a criminal public corruption investigation.
Greg Price, an attorney examiner with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and chief of the electric and energy section, stepped back from investigations into FirstEnergy Corp. He cited the “truly unique circumstances” in play.
The company admitted in a statement of facts to the U.S. Department of Justice last summer it transferred about $60 million into an account controlled by the Former House Speaker to pass House Bill 6 in 2019. It also said it paid the former PUCO chairman, Sam Randazzo, about $4.3 million just before he started, all for legal and regulatory favors to the company.
“Due to the fact that I provided legal review and advice to the previous Commission Chairman regarding [HB 6] and in light of the truly unique circumstances presented today, I have concluded that it is in the best interest of the Commission that I withdraw from presiding over these four proceedings,” Price wrote in a letter.
His withdrawal comes after the Ohio Capital Journal reported last week that subpoenaed records the PUCO provided to the DOJ show the extent of his involvement behind the scenes as HB 6 passed. Since its passage, meanwhile, Price has issued several rulings on FirstEnergy PUCO cases that have blocked access to documents and witnesses.
The report revealed two documents listing Price — along with Scott Elisar, Randazzo’s former law partner who was hired as PUCO’s policy director — as an employee formally reviewing the legislation for the agency in 2019. HB 6 provided bailouts to two nuclear plants owned at the time by a FirstEnergy subsidiary. This and other provisions were worth an estimated $1.3 billion to the company.
FirstEnergy acknowledged its payments to politicians in a deferred prosecution agreement in which it paid a $230 million penalty and said it would cooperate with prosecutors to possibly avert a charge of honest services wire fraud. Randazzo has not been charged with a crime and has maintained his innocence. Householder awaits trial for a charge of racketeering.
However, Price’s “withdrawal” raises other questions, including whether he will wield influence with the commissioners or his replacement in final dispositions of the cases. His letter also seemed to imply he assists with other legislation that controls cases he presides over.
“During my tenure at the Commission, it has been my privilege to review legislation pending before the General Assembly and advise the Chair and Commissioners regarding legal issues raised by such legislation,” he said. “I have also presided over many cases involving the subsequent implementation of legislation for which I had previously provided legal advice.”
A PUCO spokesman did not respond to written inquiries sent on Saturday.
The Ohio Consumers Counsel, a state agency that represents residential electric customers before the PUCO, led the investigative efforts into FirstEnergy. Price rejected severa of their subpoena requests and other motions in the first energy cases.
“We don’t have a comment on PUCO hearing officer Price’s withdrawal from presiding over the investigations of FirstEnergy,” said spokesman J.P. Blackwood. “We continue to seek truth and justice for two million consumers of FirstEnergy regarding its scandals with government. And we’re considering all our legal options for overcoming impediments to fact-finding in those PUCO investigations.”Originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.