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Why Ohio Lawmakers Are Rethinking Recent Nuclear Power Plant Bailouts

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lawmakers in Ohio are looking at repealing a nuclear power plant bailout that was passed last year. Federal investigators are linking the passage of the bill to the biggest corruption case in the state's history. Here's Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow.

ANDY CHOW, BYLINE: Ohio's sweeping energy law that bailed out two of the state's nuclear power plants is now tied to a $61 million bribery scheme. It's an alleged web of conspiracy entangling the speaker of the House, a huge energy company and the state's top utilities regulator.

Let's go back to 2017. The U.S. Department of Justice says that's when Republican State Representative Larry Householder hashed out a plan with a utility company, not directly named but believed to be FirstEnergy. That plan was a quid pro quo. Householder would get money to help him become speaker, and FirstEnergy would get a bailout of its nuclear power plants. From 2017 to 2018, Householder was backed by millions of dollars in so-called dark money used to elect his allies in House races around the state.

Fast-forward to January 2019. Those allies elect Householder as speaker, and he then rolls out a plan for a billion-dollar nuclear power plant bailout, the money coming from ratepayers. Rachael Belz, a ratepayer advocate with Ohio Consumers Power Alliance, says something smelled fishy.

RACHAEL BELZ: It seemed an awful lot like a real setup. It was never more apparent than HB6 and even heading into it that we were David and they were Goliath.

CHOW: That bill, HB6, attracted national attention because it cut green energy standards at a time when many states were doing the opposite - increasing their mandates for renewable energy. Five months later, a mysterious campaign group called Generation Now spent millions on mailers and ads supporting the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Opposing reform, killing Ohio jobs and sending...

CHOW: Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio says the group wouldn't disclose where the money was coming from, and that makes it hard on voters.

CATHERINE TURCER: If they can't understand how our legislators are making decisions or who is attempting to influence elections or to influence the way we feel about public policy, well, then we're left in the dark.

CHOW: That mystery was solved in July when the scandal broke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID DEVILLERS: We're here today to announce the arrest of Larry Householder, the speaker of the House.

CHOW: It turns out the FBI had been following the bailout bill saga from the beginning and says it has evidence to prove Householder was taking bribes from FirstEnergy funneled through the group Generation Now. In October, a lobbyist for FirstEnergy pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, and just hours later, FirstEnergy fired its CEO, Chuck Jones. And last month, Ohio's Public Utilities Commission chair Sam Randazzo resigned after the FBI searched his home.

Despite the scandal, many Ohio legislators still defend the nuclear bailout. Republican state Representative Dick Stein says it saves jobs and cuts down on carbon. Stein argues that its benefits outweigh the scandal.

DICK STEIN: For those folks involved, they'll pay a price for any wrongdoing that ultimately comes through the court process.

CHOW: Ohio lawmakers are now considering repealing or freezing the bailout. If that's not done by the end of this month, new charges will appear on ratepayer's bills to start funding the bailout. Meanwhile, Larry Householder maintains his innocence, and while removed as House speaker, he remains a state representative after winning reelection last month.

For NPR News, I'm Andy Chow in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "TRANSVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.