Local Politics: Sam Randazzo’s death opens void in HB6 scandal

The former PUCO chairman died by suicide on Tuesday, leaving behind questions about who else he could have implicated and how much of that information might have died along with him.
Ohio Statehouse
Ohio StatehouseCreative Commons

The body count of the HB6 scandal has grown. 

Three years after high-powered lobbyist Neil Clark died by suicide following his indictment in connection with the biggest public corruption case in Ohio history, disgraced former Public Utilities Commission (PUCO) chairman Sam Randazzo was found dead on Tuesday in a Columbus warehouse he owned. The Franklin County coroner’s office has labeled it a suspected suicide.

Randazzo stood accused of accepting $4.3 million in bribes from Akron-based FirstEnergy to help push through a $1.3 billion bailout for two nuclear plants the company owns. He received millions more from FirstEnergy to lobby on its behalf in the years leading up to his PUCO appointment. Randazzo’s actions led to authorities charging him on 11 federal counts last fall. Parallel state charges were leveled against him in February. This, of course, is the same case that landed former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder in federal prison for 20 years and ex-Ohio GOP chairman Matt Borges in prison for five years. All of them were pretty clearly doing FirstEnergy’s bidding in exchange for cash, be it for personal or political purposes. Randazzo was likely facing considerable time behind bars in what, by all appearances, seemed like an open-and-shut case.

By now the “who did what for whom and why” of the HB6 case is pretty clear. FirstEnergy paid legislators, lobbyists and regulators millions of dollars in order to get a favorable bill passed, an attempted repeal of that bill quashed, and beneficial regulatory rulings entered in its favor. What’s less clear, and what remains relevant, is how someone as ethically compromised as Randazzo ended up in a position to do what he did in the first place. But even if it’s less clear, we do know a good deal about how it happened.

Randazzo’s corrupt nature was well known before Governor Mike DeWine selected him to head PUCO in 2019. Indeed, days before Randazzo’s February 2019 appointment, DeWine’s former campaign treasurer, J.B. Hadden, warned senior gubernatorial aides about Randazzo’s “opaque and undisclosed” financial ties to FirstEnergy and voiced concerns about his integrity. It’s probably worth noting that one of the officials who read Hadden’s dossier, DeWine’s Chief of Staff, Laurel Dawson, is married to a former FirstEnergy lobbyist with long-standing connections to Randazzo. Dawson later admitted that she knew about the $4.3 million payment from FirstEnergy to Randazzo. Despite the warnings, DeWine appointed Randazzo to a position that allowed him to best do FirstEnergy’s bidding.

While DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted have claimed total ignorance of Randazzo’s shady dealings with FirstEnergy, we have since learned that DeWine and Husted dined with FirstEnergy executives to discuss who would be the best choice for the PUCO chairmanship. We also learned that DeWine and Husted performed what has been referred to as “battlefield triage” to ensure Randazzo’s appointment to PUCO when some amount of board opposition emerged, and that Husted, referred to in charging documents as “State Official 2,” worked hard to ensure that the HB6 bailout terms were what FirstEnergy and Randazzo wanted.

As long as Randazzo’s case was slowly winding its way through the legal system it made some amount of sense to take a wait and see approach to what it all meant and who else, if anyone, might face consequences related to the largest corruption scandal in the history of the state. But now, like Neil Clark, Sam Randazzo is dead. And the question facing both investigators and Ohioans at large is whether or not everything he knew – and everything worth knowing – about this case died with him.

If so, that’d be an almost impossibly neat ending to this affair, wouldn’t you say?

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