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Cleveland businessman Tony George was go-between for FirstEnergy, ex-House Speaker Larry Householder over nuclear bailout

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 8/24/2022 Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com
Cleveland restauteur Tony George. © Marc Bona/cleveland.com/TNS Cleveland restauteur Tony George.

COLUMBUS, Ohio— New documents reveal a close relationship between Cleveland restaurateur Tony George and FirstEnergy in the House Bill 6 bribery scheme, with George acting as an intermediary between top FirstEnergy officials and now-indicted former House Speaker Larry Householder.

George, who has extensive financial connections with FirstEnergy, was so close to Householder and FirstEnergy executives that they together attended Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in 2017, according to Tracy Ashton, FirstEnergy’s assistant controller, in a deposition transcript made public Friday in a state filing by the office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel.

George was identified by Ashton during her deposition last May as “Individual B” in FirstEnergy’s deferred prosecution agreement with federal authorities. The 2021 agreement states that “Individual B” was in communication with now-fired FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones about an early effort to bail out two Northern Ohio nuclear power plants, as well as an aborted effort by Householder to skirt state term limits.

In the deferred prosecution agreement, FirstEnergy admitted to bribing Householder as part of a $60 million scheme to pass the nuclear bailout as part of House Bill 6. Householder has pleaded not guilty to a federal corruption charge, though three co-defendants have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scandal. George has so far not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer has reached out to George for comment.

The deferred prosecution agreement quotes texts between George and Jones starting in November 2016, as FirstEnergy was pursuing legislation to provide financial assistance to the Davis-Besse and Perry nuclear power plants – owned by a then-subsidiary of FirstEnergy.

“Pass on to [Householder],” Jones texted George on Nov. 5, 2016, according to the agrement. “When we were talking on Weds I told him there was gonna be a sense of urgency but couldn’t tell him all the details. If we don’t move on some type of supplant in first half of 2017 it will be too late. These plants will be shut, sold, or bankrupt. I don’t have any contact info for him.”

The agreement does not include any reply from George.

The deferred prosecution agreement also includes a text exchange between Jones and George about a proposed constitutional amendment that, if passed, would have allowed Householder to remain in the Ohio House through 2036 despite Ohio’s eight-year term limits for state lawmakers.

“Talked to Speaker [Householder] today. He’s an expensive friend,” Jones texted George, including a laughing with tears emoji.

“I did not know what he wanted to talk to you about,” George replied.

Jones: “His term limit initiative. 16 years lifetime max in legislature starting when it passes. No need to switch houses. But after 16 your [sic] done for good.” George: “I think it’s a great idea especially if he stays there”

Jones: “He told me he’ll retire from there but get [sic] a lot done in 16 more years.”

George: “Probably more than five previous Speakers combined” George: “He will make Ohio great again”

Jones: “Yep”

A PUCO audit released last year outlined a longtime financial relationship between George and FirstEnergy, showing the Akron-based utility gave a dozen entities linked to George $10.7 million in payments.

While the audit didn’t implicate George in any way, it linked the bar and restaurant owner to a company ensnared in what federal authorities say is one of the most significant federal corruption investigations in state history.

The payments identified in the audit to companies controlled by George include $2.6 million for Ohio Outdoor Advertising for billboards promoting energy efficiency and $2.2 million to Ecoearth Energy (for pro-energy efficiency billboards as well as consulting fees).

FirstEnergy paid George’s businesses $35,000 a month in rent for a warehouse on Euclid Avenue, $400,000 to be an “alternative energy consultant” and $47,000 to develop FirstEnergy credit and debit cards, according to the report.

The utility also contributed to Awakening Angels, a nonprofit George founded in honor of his son, Michael, who died in 2019.

The audit recommended that $6.6 million be returned to ratepayers.

George told cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer at the time that while he hadn’t read the audit, “anything that we billed FirstEnergy for was proper.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit cleveland.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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