Groups backing Gov. DeWine and his daughter received FirstEnergy cash funneled through dark money outfits
Jackie Borchardt Cincinnati Enquirer
December 23, 2020
(LFC Added pictures and emphasis)
COLUMBUS – Cash from FirstEnergy Corp. and related businesses reached the coffers of dark money groups supporting Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and his daughter and Greene County prosecutor candidate, Alice DeWine, newly revealed tax documents show.
The filing sheds new light on a key player in a federal bribery investigation that entangled the former Republican speaker of the Ohio House and four others in July.
Federal prosecutors allege FirstEnergy and related businesses funneled $60 million through entities that don’t have to publicly report much about their activities to secure a $1 billion a year bailout for two northern Ohio nuclear power plants previously owned by a former FirstEnergy subsidiary.
FirstEnergy gave $20 million to Partners for Progress Inc. in 2019, according to an affidavit filed in the federal investigation. That’s the only funding the group received all year, according to a 2019 tax filing obtained by the pro-renewable energy outfit Energy and Policy Institute.
Partners for Progress is organized as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, which means it cannot spend more than half of its expenditures on political causes nor work closely with candidates and their campaigns. Such groups are called “dark money” entities because they don’t have to disclose their donors.
Partners for Progress then gave $13 million to Generation Now Inc., another social welfare nonprofit that federal prosecutors say was illegally controlled by former speaker Larry Householder. The group helped elect Householder allies and flooded airwaves and mailboxes with ads supporting House Bill 6, which passed in July 2019 and was quickly signed into law by DeWine.
The filing shows Partners for Progress gave another $910,000 to six other Ohio-based nonprofits and for-profit corporations that don’t have to disclose donors:
- $200,000 to Consumers Against Deceptive Fees, a Cleveland group lobbying against local utility fees.
- $85,000 to Jobs and Progress Fund Inc., which has the same address as West Chester attorney David Langdon, who has set up dozens of conservative dark money groups.
- $150,000 to Liberty Ohio, Inc., a secretive group that funded ads attacking outgoing state Rep. Candice Keller, R-Middletown.
- $75,000 to Protecting Ohio Inc., which paid for mailers supporting Alice DeWine’s county prosecutor campaign this year.
- $100,000 to Rebuilding America, headquartered at the home of former state senator and current Ohio Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Rhine McLin.
- $300,000 to Securing Ohio’s Future, a third-party group supporting Gov. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s campaign.
The tax filing listed “political campaign intervention” as the reason for the grants to the latter four groups.
Candidates are not allowed to coordinate with dark money groups. DeWine said Wednesday that Securing Ohio’s Future was independent – “as it has to be” – from his campaign.
“It’s totally separate, totally independent,” DeWine said during a coronavirus briefing. “I didn’t know what they were doing.”
FirstEnergy declined comment, citing ongoing investigations. A phone call to the principal officer listed for Partners for Progress – Calfee, Halter and Griswold attorney Michael VanBuren – was not immediately returned.
Partners for Progress describes its activities as “advocacy support of public utilities, related industries and associated public policy concerns.”
Partners for Progress had been led by DeWine’s chief lobbyist Dan McCarthy until he cut ties with the group to join the governor’s administration in January 2019, The Enquirer first reported in July. McCarthy said then he was not aware of “anything illegal or unethical” about Partners for Progress’ operations or transactions.
The filing shows for the first time where a dark money group supporting Alice DeWine’s bid for county prosecutor got some of its funding.
A federal political action committee called Protecting Ohio Action Fund spent $419,400 during the 2019-20 cycle through Nov. 23, federal campaign finance reports show. Protecting Ohio Action’s website used to promote Alice DeWine; it now urges voters to vote for Republican Joe Deters for Hamilton County prosecutor.
The PAC was almost entirely funded last year by Protecting Ohio Inc., which was not incorporated in Ohio but has a Columbus post office box address on Partners for Progress’ tax filing. The group received $419,281 from Protecting Ohio Inc. and $1,000 from Cincinnati lobbyist Chip Gerhardt.
Alice DeWine lost the primary for the prosecutor’s race in April.
Securing Ohio’s Future Action Fund raised and spent about $4.8 million supporting the DeWine-Husted ticket during the 2018 gubernatorial race, according to federal campaign finance records. Securing Ohio’s Future Inc., a dark money group, contributed $2.1 million during that cycle.
The PAC had a quieter year in 2019; all $48,126 raised came from Securing Ohio’s Future Inc. The first contribution was made July 12, when state lawmakers were whipping votes to pass House Bill 6.
DeWine, who supported House Bill 6, called for the bill to be repealed and replaced after the scandal broke in July. Lawmakers adjourned Tuesday without taking action on the tainted law.
Money for Democrat-linked group
Rebuilding America was incorporated in Ohio on Oct. 8, 2019, by Ron Malone. Malone is a Democratic political consultant who has worked closely with organized labor. The address listed for the group, a 501(c)(4), is Ohio Democratic Party Vice Chairwoman Rhine McLin’s Dayton home.
The tax filing doesn’t indicate when in 2019 the $100,000 was given to Rebuilding America or the other recipients.
A state party spokeswoman said the organization was founded to support Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s presidential run. Ryan, a Democrat from Niles, dropped out of the race Oct. 24.
The group changed its name to Modern America Project in January. In a statement, McLin said the organization was a nonprofit that conducted research and supported social justice organizations and none of the board members was compensated for their work with the group.
Peter Mellinger, executive director of Modern America Project, told The Enquirer the nonprofit did not receive finding this year from Partners for Progress and is in the process of shutting down.