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Coalition that wants the state to dissolve FirstEnergy to gather at Statehouse to apply pressure

FirstEnergy building
FirstEnergy building

There's a coalition asking Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to pull the plug on Akron-based FirstEnergy. Its members hope to get his attention at a rally planned for Wednesday at the Statehouse.

Wednesday is the fifth anniversary of 2019's House Bill 6 passage in the Ohio House.

The coalition says the company at the heart of the state's largest bribery scandal hasn't faced adequate consequences. The coalition wants Yost to make use of an Ohio law to revoke the company's permission to do business in the state.

FirstEnergy admitted to paying more than $60 million in bribes to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and others, including Sam Randazzo, former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

In exchange, the company secured a $1 billion taxpayer-funded bailout that unraveled when federal investigators revealed the scheme.

The company paid a $230 million fine. The manager of FirstEnergy's corporate communications department said it restructured the business with a focus on ethics and brought in a new board and executive team.

But the FirstEnergy Accountability Coalition argue that isn't enough.

"You know, some of those people are in jail already, but the company itself so far has gotten off the hook," said Greg Coleridge, a member of the coalition. "The company itself admitted to their involvement in the $61 billion scheme. And yet, just only having to pay a fine that amounted to, I don't know what, one quarter of their annual revenue, which just did not seem, fair or accountable, commensurate to their crime."

Coleridge and Sandy Bolzenius are with Ohio Move to Amend, an organization working to reduce corporate money and influence in elections.

Coleridge and Bolzenius say the scheme was an attempt to hijack Ohio's democracy.

"The harms are so serious and so far reaching. I mean, we're talking about harms to our democracy. We're talking about harms to the consumers. We're talking about harms to the environment. So it's not enough. Just a slap on the wrist and a little fine, which frankly, I think it's apparent that companies are building those fines into their fiscal reports these days," Bolzenius said.

The coalition wants Attorney General Dave Yost to take a hard stance.

"There needs to be a response that is equivalent in scale to the proportion of the problem, to the proportion and the magnitude of the harm. And to us, a simple fine doesn't cut it. That is not proportionate, that is not in scale," Coleridge said.

Yost filed a civil suit against FirstEnergy and its subsidiaries in 2020, which is ongoing.

"The civil suit does provide a number of options, one of which is to dissolve. It's not the only one. And so, you know, we want to make sure that he doesn't go for the minimalist response," Coleridge said.

Coleridge said it's been a while since the state revoked a company's charter. But Ohio took that step to break up the Standard Oil monopoly more than a century ago, dissolving the trust. And the state has the ability to take away licenses to practice law, medicine and other professions all the time.

"Dissolving corporations is not something that was such a strange thing to do in the past. And unfortunately, corporations have become so strong, so powerful that, when I discuss this with people today, they feel like, good luck. You'll never be able to do that. They don't even know that we have these powers," Bolzenius said.

The coalition said another company can take over FirstEnergy's one million customers and hire their employees.

"It's not like people who are ratepayers, customers are going to be in the dark or going out to break up their furniture and create a bonfire in their living room to be warm in the winter. It's absurd," Coleridge said.

The coalition and other partners plan a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday on the ground level of the Statehouse at the Governor Thomas Worthington Center at the corner of Broad and High streets in Columbus.

Following the press conference, attendees will march across the street to the office of Attorney General Dave Yost. The march will feature banners, signs and handouts calling for Yost to “Unplug FirstEnergy.”

The coalition plans to deliver a letter asking Yost to take action and want to meet with him or a representative.

"The people created the charters. We have the right to take them away. Not for any political reason, but because if they are harming the public, because that's what they were for originally, just to, for specific reasons, to be a help to the public," Bolzenius said.

Yost's office did not respond to WOSU's request for a comment.

State regulatory investigations into FirstEnergy and House Bill 6 were delayed to avoid interfering with criminal prosecutions.

FirstEnergy's former CEO Chuck Jones and former Senior Vice President Mike Dowling are facing state charges of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, bribery, theft, fraud and money laundering.

They've pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In a shareholder address last week, FirstEnergy president and CEO Brian Tierney said the company is doing well.

"As a result of the excellent work we’ve done to strengthen our balance sheet, we’re in a strong position for the first time in the company’s history to grow and invest in the opportunities across our businesses," Tierney said.

"Together with our unwavering commitment to ethics and integrity, performance excellence and continuous improvement, we are confident that strong execution of the virtuous business cycle model will help us achieve our strategic objectives and deliver value," he said.

The shareholders also sued FirstEnergy. The suit was dismissed earlier this month after a $180 million resettlement was reached and approved.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.