But most of FirstEnergy’s contributions were in the form of dark money: Neither journalists nor members of the public could figure out who was behind the payments because they were funneled mostly through a nonprofit called Generation Now, secretly controlled by Householder. Generation Now, which is considered a 501(c)(4) in the nonprofit world, pleaded guilty to racketeering and forfeited $1.5 million to the government. At the crux of its case against FirstEnergy, the federal government accused it of paying the bribes to Householder and four associates to get House Bill 6 passed in 2019. That bill, which has largely been repealed, was to provide a $1 billion bailout of nuclear power plants owned by a former FirstEnergy subsidiary. Sweeney calls it a loophole in state law — that 501(c)(4) entities don’t have to disclose donors or people who control the funds. The way the law is currently written, almost no one can get to the bottom of who is behind the nonprofits.
Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, a Cleveland Democrat who has sponsored two bills in the last two sessions of the Republican-controlled legislature, said lawmakers are more talk than action. Legislation was introduced by members of both parties during the current two-year legislative session and the last. Yet no bill has made it past the finish line to become law.
“There doesn’t seem like there’s been real movement, but more of a talking point by the legislature to show it’s under control,” she said. When Householder was arrested and the scandal broke last year, many members of the Ohio General Assembly seemed to agree that dark money was a problem, introducing bills that would require dark money entities known as 501(c)(4)s to disclose donors. That isn’t required now under state law.
Furthermore, Seitz said anti-corruption bills need to be tougher on prohibiting coordination between political campaigns and independent expenditure campaigns, which under state and federal law are allowed to advocate or oppose a candidate but are not supposed to work with the political campaign staff. But even if any of the bills got through the House, they might not move in the Senate. “Donors have a legitimate right to expect privacy when they are simply advocating an idea,” Seitz wrote in an April email to Rep. Diane Grendell, who is sponsoring one of the bills. “When donors stray from that to running ads that speak favorably or unfavorably about particular candidates for public office, that is when full disclosure must apply. On that score, I would suggest that any spending on any ad run within 90 days prior to any election that so much as mentions any candidate for public office must have complete disclosure of that spending, including who paid for it.”
Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who is in House GOP leadership, disagrees with disclosing all donors in all campaigns, which he calls overly broad. Seitz he cannot support a bill unless it’s changed to say that nothing in the bill applies to spending on state or local ballot issues. “The only way to peel that back is the FBI, and wiretapping, to see who is donating,” she said.
The News Highlights
- FirstEnergy admitted that secret dark money made the bribery scheme possible. So what happened to Ohio legislation that required more disclosure?
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