Reporter’s Notebook: Powering up the controversy
My column is back after a much needed COVID-19/birthday weekend last week, and what a weird time to turn 38.
Once again, the fact that Gov. Jim Justice hasn’t put the vast majority of his businesses into blind trusts is biting him on the behind as news of the charges against Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder continues to reverberate.
I had a full story on this on Thursday, but I’ll try to quickly summarize the situation. Householder, a Republican, and associates are accused of receiving as much as $60 million through a non-profit funded by Company C — most likely FirstEnergy Corp. The money was used to help candidates who ultimately made Householder the speaker of the House, then it was used to promote Ohio House Bill 6 to help two FirstEnergy nuclear power plants by subsidizing them with money from Ohio rate payers.
Later, the money was used to bribe people involved with a ballot initiative to repeal HB 6, as well as to bribe companies who collect signatures for ballot initiatives to sit on their hands and other companies simply to not get involved. On top of that, investigators said Householder and his associates directly benefited financially from the money funneled through the non-profit allegedly by FirstEnergy.
All while this scheme was going on last year, FirstEnergy was working with its spin-off FirstEnergy Solutions (now Energy Harbor) to get West Virginia House Bill 207 on the special session agenda to get a $12 million tax break for the Pleasants Power Station.
I want to stress my bias here: I think House Bill 207 was and is a good law. Pleasants Power is in my home county and without that tax break, it would be closed as of 2022. Hundreds of jobs would be gone, not counting the hundreds more. It was the only power plant still required to pay a Business and Occupation Tax while other power plants were allowed to push the tax down to consumers or get exemptions. It was an unfair tax.
The problem with the bill, at the time, was that Justice had failed to disclose that one of his companies was being sued by FirstEnergy Solutions for $3.1 million. It also doesn’t help that Justice has received more than $21,000 from the FirstEnergy Political Action Committee and FirstEnergy associates and lobbyists for his re-election campaign.
At one point, one month before Justice added HB 207 to the special session — FirstEnergy PAC donated $2,800 to Justice’s campaign. HB 207 was signed into law on July 30, 2019, and six days later the campaign refunded the donation, only for FirstEnergy PAC to send the Justice campaign another $2,800 check on Oct. 24, 2019. That implied, to me at least, that the Justice campaign understood how that June donation looked.
Does all of this rise to the level of the scandal going on in Ohio? No, at least not yet. FirstEnergy has been subpoenaed in the continuing federal investigation in Ohio. It’s possible they could start spilling the beans on other schemes.
In West Virginia, there doesn’t appear to be any quid pro quo even though there was a conflict of interest because of the FirstEnergy Solutions lawsuit against one of Justice’s companies over a breach of contract — a conflict the governor’s office was blindsided with at the time and a conflict lawmakers were not aware of until after passing HB 207. The campaign donations are interesting in light of the recent news, but that’s it. The lawsuit is still in court. Had it been dismissed after HB 207 passed, it would have raised some real questions.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he would push for eliminating the subsidies for FirstEnergy’s (now Energy Harbor Nuclear Corporation’s) two nuclear plants in the state. I hope something similar doesn’t happen with the Pleasants Power tax break. But again, this is why you put your companies in a blind trust before taking office.
When I asked about all this last Wednesday in light of the Ohio scandal and Democratic candidate for governor Ben Salango calling for an investigation, Justice was none too happy, though he endeavored to answer the question.
Mostly, he was mad at being asked a political question during his three-times-a-week COVID-19 briefing from the Capitol. I’d get that, except for the fact that the governor frequently goes off on political rants all the time on the briefing. Sometimes he goes off in directions that have nothing to do with anything, especially COVID-19.
Ultimately, it would be better for the public, for the press and for Justice himself to start having in-person press briefings, for COVID-19 issues, campaign events and press availability. Justice got lucky in the primary. There is no doubt the daily video briefings helped him win the Republican primary over Woody Thrasher. Thrasher was unable to get out much during the stay-at-home executive order, while Justice was seen every day fielding every question and concern.
It’s different now. The state is mostly open, even with social distancing and the requirement of masks. Salango already is going around the state campaigning. Justice is going to need to do the same thing instead of hiding in Lewisburg and in the Capitol.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.