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Ohio governor deflects questions on public utility official

November 17, 2020 GMT
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FBI agents remove items from the German Village home of Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)
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FBI agents remove items from the German Village home of Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairman Sam Randazzo in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. (Adam Cairns/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Gov. Mike DeWine at a news briefing to discuss the latest measures in the state’s effort to control the coronavirus epidemic on Tuesday deflected questions about an FBI search of the Columbus home of his appointee as the state’s top utility regulator.

DeWine announced in February 2019 the appointment of Sam Randazzo, a longtime utility attorney and lobbyist, as chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

In response to a question, the Republican governor said there were no indications that Randazzo was under investigation or the target of an investigation.

“We’re waiting for additional information, quite candidly,” DeWine said. “I hired him. I think he’s a good person. If there’s evidence to the contrary, we’ll act accordingly. But I’m not going to act without the facts.”

The FBI has not provided any details about Monday’s search. A PUCO spokesperson declined to comment and said Randazzo was not available for an interview on Monday.

The PUCO chair is one of the most powerful positions in state government, wielding extraordinary influence on matters regarding the regulation of utilities in the state to include utility profits and rates charged to customers. As PUCO chair, Randazzo also is chair of the Ohio Power Siting Board, which has oversight approval for new electric-generating facilities.

The search came nearly four months after the FBI arrested then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others in connection to a $60 million bribery scheme funded by Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., which was seeking a $1 billion legislative bailout for its two aging nuclear power plants in the state.

Householder and four others were subsequently indicted on racketeering charges in federal court. Householder has pleaded not guilty. Two of the men indicted with Householder have pleaded guilty to charges. The FBI would not say whether Monday’s search was related to that bribery probe.

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups on Tuesday called on DeWine to immediately remove Randazzo from the PUCO, citing his “well-known” ties to FirstEnergy. The governor has the sole authority to remove PUCO commission members.

“We have adamantly opposed Randazzo’s appointment since February 2019. He does not hold an elected position, so the power to remove him rest squarely on the shoulders of the governor,” the coalition said in a joint statement.

The groups, including Ohio Citizen Action, Black Environmental Leaders, Evangelical Environmental Network and Moms Clean Air Force, said Randazzo can’t oversee utilities in a fair and ethical way if he is being investigated by the FBI.

On Monday, a former chair of the Ohio Republican Party who is among those charged in the alleged bribery scheme, denied wrongdoing in an interview.

“I did not break the law,” lobbyist Matt Borges, who served as party chair from 2013 to 2017, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I did not conspire to break the law. I did not intend to break the law. I was not aware of anyone else breaking the law if it was happening.”

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Borges pleaded not guilty in August to a charge of racketeering following a July indictment.

Borges’ attorney asked a Franklin County judge Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost that seeks to stop money from being collected from nearly all Ohio electric ratepayers beginning in January to pay for the nuclear plant subsidies.

Yost’s lawsuit also wants the criminal defendants banned from lobbying or participating in campaigns.

Two of the five defendants, Juan Cespedes and Jeffrey Longstreth, pleaded guilty last month.

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Gillispie reported from Cleveland. Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report from Columbus.