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FirstEnergy cash comprised big chunk of donations to dark money outfits backing DeWine and his daughter, documents show

Cincinnati Enquirer logo Cincinnati Enquirer 1/8/2021 Jessie Balmert, Cincinnati Enquirer
Mike DeWine wearing a suit and tie: Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update on the state's COVID-19 response from his Cedarville home on Sept. 15, 2020. © Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update on the state's COVID-19 response from his Cedarville home on Sept. 15, 2020.

COLUMBUS – Money from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. comprised more than one-third of all contributions to a dark money group supporting Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and likely all of the cash given to one backing his daughter's county prosecutor bid, newly revealed 2019 tax records show. 

The donations came the same year that Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature passed House Bill 6, which included a $1 billion subsidy for two nuclear plants, then-owned by FirstEnergy Solutions. DeWine signed the bill within hours of it reaching his desk.

DeWine's daughter Alice DeWine announced her campaign for Greene County prosecutor in September 2019.

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Federal investigators say former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others used nearly $61 million from energy companies, chiefly FirstEnergy, to fuel Householder's leadership fight, House Bill 6's passage and an extensive effort to block a ballot initiative to upend the bailout.  

Householder, former Ohio Republican Party leader Matt Borges and lobbyist Neil Clark have pleaded not guilty. No one from FirstEnergy or the governor's office has been charged with a crime. 

Funneling campaign contributions through a web of nonprofits and for-profit corporations that can obscure their donors is not illegal, thanks largely to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision. These organizations are often called "dark money groups." 

Federal investigators say Householder and his allies broke the law by carefully coordinating the money and using it for personal expenses, such as repairs on Householder's Florida home.

Candidates are prohibited from directly coordinating with independent expenditure groups, and DeWine said he didn't. 

"The governor and lieutenant governor asked FirstEnergy and many other companies and individuals to support efforts to help them with their election through either their campaign or an independent expenditure committee in a way that is entirely consistent with campaign laws and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United," DeWine spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said. "Donations had no influence in the handling of House Bill 6."

Follow the money

FirstEnergy contributions funneled through the dark money group Partners for Progress comprised one-third of the pro-Mike DeWine group's contributions last year and likely all of the pro-Alice DeWine group.

Here’s how the FirstEnergy money got to the pro-DeWine groups:

  • FirstEnergy Corp. donated $20 million to a dark money group, Partners for Progress Inc., in 2019, according to a federal affidavit.
  • Partners for Progress donated $300K in 2019 to Securing Ohio’s Future, a dark money nonprofit that backed DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted's 2018 gubernatorial bid.
  • Securing Ohio's Future gave $48,126 to Securing Ohio's Future Action Fund, a pro-DeWine super PAC, and paid $122,150 to Florida-based Republican firm Majority Strategies for "issue advocacy."
  • Securing Ohio’s Future donated $100,500 to Protecting Ohio Inc., a dark money nonprofit that backed Alice DeWine's unsuccessful prosecutor bid. 
  • The pro-Alice DeWine Protecting Ohio Inc. was funded by two donations in 2019: $100,500 from Securing Ohio's Future and $75,000 from Partners for Progress.

The 2019 tax forms were obtained by the pro-renewable energy outfit Energy and Policy Institute and reviewed by the USA Today Network Ohio Bureau.

Gov. DeWine, through a spokeswoman, said he asked FirstEnergy officials in September 2019 to support his daughter's prosecutor bid with independent expenditures. Independent expenditures are political ads that support or oppose a candidate without cooperation with that candidate or their campaign.

Both Securing Ohio's Future and Protecting Ohio were run by Nick Wise, a longtime DeWine ally who worked for DeWine in Congress. 

Money spent with former Householder aide's firm

Both the pro-DeWine dark money group and pro-DeWine super PAC spent money in 2019 with Majority Strategies, according to tax and campaign finance records. The firm's CEO Brett Buerck is a former Householder aide. 

In 2018, Majority Strategies worked with Securing Ohio's Future to turn out Republican voters for DeWine's gubernatorial bid. 

Majority Strategies touts the successful effort on its website: "These additional 206,858 unexpected DeWine votes created by Securing Ohio’s Future were critical to victory – as Governor DeWine’s margin over (Democrat Rich) Cordray was 164,070 votes."

Since 2018, DeWine's super PAC, Securing Ohio's Future Action Fund, has received money from just two sources: Securing Ohio's Future and the Republican Governor's Association, according to Federal Election Commission records. 

Super PACs are required to list their donors, but the original source of the money is obscured when those donors are dark money groups. 

'The key is the information getting out there'

Current Ohio law doesn't require groups like Securing Ohio's Future or Protecting Ohio Inc. to disclose the source of their donations. If not for the federal investigation, no one would know that FirstEnergy funneled money to pro-DeWine groups. 

When asked if dark money groups should be required to reveal more, DeWine said in December that transparency was needed. Peterson confirmed Friday that the administration is still working on a package of reforms to address disclosure. 

"The key is the information getting out there," DeWine said. "The public can weigh that and make their own decisions.”

Ohio Bureau chief Jackie Borchardt contributed reporting. 

Read the records 

Protecting Ohio Inc. is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that supported Alice DeWine's bid for Greene County prosecutor. 

Securing Ohio's Future Inc. is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that supports Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted's gubernatorial bid. 

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: FirstEnergy cash comprised big chunk of donations to dark money outfits backing DeWine and his daughter, documents show

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