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Ohio Bribery Scandal Raises Questions About Clean Energy Availability In State

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The fallout continues in Ohio from a bribery scandal that involves a powerful utility. It centers on a law to bail out nuclear and coal plants but to gut standards for renewable energy and efficiency. As the Allegheny Front's Julie Grant reports, it's raising new questions about Ohio Republican lawmakers' long hostility toward clean energy.

JULIE GRANT, BYLINE: Dave Karpinski has been struggling for years to get approval from state regulators for an offshore wind project in Lake Erie. But in May, the final decision included a surprise poison pill that he says would kill the project. So it was almost a relief to hear about charges of bribery involving Ohio's energy industry.

DAVE KARPINSKI: To see that, you know, this justice was done or at least in process of being done was very vindicating and said, OK, we - you know, we weren't crazy. We were fighting a losing battle here against that kind of corruption.

GRANT: Federal investigators say now-former House Speaker Larry Householder pushed through the energy law in exchange for $61 million in bribes. He's charged with funneling money from two companies that are not named in the complaint but are widely believed to be FirstEnergy and the coal company Murray Energy. Both have a stake in the nuclear and coal plants that got subsidies.

Randi Leppla is with the Ohio Environmental Council.

RANDI LEPPLA: It did make us take a moment and think, well, I guess this explains a lot about why we couldn't get clean energy policy through in the state of Ohio when Ohioans are overwhelmingly supportive of that.

GRANT: Leppla says the wind project is just one in a line of decisions that shows the hostility of Republican policymakers toward renewable energy. In recent years, the state made it more difficult to site other wind farms and held up approval of solar projects.

Critics point to a key player behind these decisions - Sam Randazzo, the state's top utility regulator, who's in charge of authorizing new power projects in Ohio. He has not been implicated in the bribery scandal, but he's a former lobbyist for gas utilities and anti-wind groups.

DAVE ANDERSON: He is known as a fairly strong anti-wind zealot.

GRANT: Dave Anderson is with the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy advocate. He says Randazzo not only lobbied for industrial energy users and utility companies, he also owns two consulting companies that have done business with FirstEnergy.

ANDERSON: In theory, there would've been a ton of cases that he had some sort of connection to from his past work as a lobbyist and attorney that he should've recused himself on.

GRANT: Randazzo declined several requests to comment. At the vote of the Lake Erie wind project, he called the restrictions on it, business as usual.

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SAM RANDAZZO: The conditions in this case have been tailored, in my view, to the issues that were raised in this proceeding, which was a contested proceeding. We have people that were opposed to moving forward with the project as well as people that were supporting moving forward with the project.

GRANT: But Murray Energy has admitted that it funded that opposition.

Cozy relationships between utility companies and lawmakers are not unique to Ohio. Last month, the utility ComEd, a subsidiary of Exelon, admitted to a long-running bribery scheme in Illinois. In both states, clean energy advocates hope the scandals might open the door for friendlier policies toward renewables.

Ohio Republican State Senator Matt Dolan says an anti-renewables reputation is bad for business. He's one of 32 lawmakers who've asked the state to reconsider that Lake Erie wind project.

MATT DOLAN: You can't have millions of dollars being spent on a project that can be killed at the last moment with a poison pill that no one even knows is coming. That is just a wet blanket over future investment way beyond the energy field.

GRANT: Meantime, the Ohio House is considering a repeal of the controversial nuclear and coal bailout law at the heart of the scandal.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Grant in Kent, Ohio

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.