Ohio can rein in the corrupting influence of dark money — if the legislature acts


General Assembly members from both political parties know perfectly well what needs to be done about “dark money” in Ohio politics: Identify the people behind it. Then, the source of that money will no longer be “dark” but rather transparent, for all Ohioans to see and know.

But, because some of those dark dollars — often, dark millions of dollars — end up greasing policies key lawmakers want, the Ohio legislature has shown no appetite to do anything about it.

That needs to change.

House Bill 6 — the nuclear bailout law whose 2019 passage was allegedly underwritten by $60 million in dark money — is Exhibit A for why this is critical. If it weren’t for federal criminal charges, Ohioans would still be in the dark.

But HB 6 is only the leading edge of a far more pervasive system of hidden influence-peddling.

Reporting by cleveland.com’s John Caniglia shows how FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the Illuminating Co., deployed dark money to undercut city-owned Cleveland Public Power (CPP).

First, a nonprofit named Partners for Progress obtained $20 million from FirstEnergy and its affiliates, Caniglia found. Of that, $200,000 went to Consumers Against Deceptive Fees, an anti-CPP group. The avowed goal of Consumers Against Deceptive Fees was “to educate East Side residents about CPP’s rates, which the group said were among the highest in the state,” Caniglia reported. But Cleveland officials, he wrote, called it “nothing more than an attempt by FirstEnergy to gut a competitor.”

However, $200,000 wasn’t the only funding for Consumers Against Deceptive Fees. The group “took in more than $551,000 in 2018 and 2019,” Caniglia reported.

Who provided the bulk of that anti-CPP money remains obscure.

Dark money is political lingo for virtually unlimited sums donated to an organization considered legally independent of the candidate or issue campaign the organization supports. Such independent organizations aren’t required to identify their contributors – hence, “dark money.”

Nondisclosure of dark-money donors leaves unanswered a key question that many Ohioans ask when trying to judge candidates or ballot issues: Who is for them – and who is against them? And why?

And hiding who or what bankrolls dark-money groups also hides who is responsible for lies or smears that money may spread.

Federal prosecutors, for instance, attributed more than just passage of HB 6 to the influence of dark money. They allege dark money was also used to kill a statewide petition drive that would have let Ohioans vote up or down on HB 6. And if Ohioans had had a chance to vote, there’s little doubt they would have killed the measure.

More than five months ago, a federal grand jury indicted then-House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican from Perry County’s Glenford, and four other Statehouse figures for alleged corruption related to HB 6′s passage. Two defendants have pleaded guilty. The other three, including Householder, are awaiting trial — and entitled to the presumption of innocence.

Soon after the indictments surfaced, General Assembly members of both parties introduced five separate bills to require dark-money groups to reveal their contributors.

Greater Cleveland state Reps. Diane Grendell, of Chesterland, and Gayle Manning, of North Ridgeville, both Republicans, and Democrat Bride Rose Sweeney, of Cleveland, were among the legislators who called for dark-money reforms.

But GOP leaders – House Speaker Robert Cupp, of Lima and then-Senate President Larry Obhof, of Medina – let the disclosure bills die. Because of their failure to act, Ohio’s House and state Senate must go back to square one with new legislation in the 2021-22 General Assembly session.

In 2010, in another of the lost opportunities that dogs Ohio politics, the GOP-led state Senate unanimously approved a dark-money disclosure bill, sponsored by then-state Sen. Jon Husted, a Republican who is now lieutenant governor. But Ohio’s House, led by then-Speaker Armond Budish, a Greater Cleveland Democrat, took no action on Husted’s 2010 plan.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley is considering seeking subpoenas to find out how the $351,000 in as-yet untracked dark-money contributions flowed to the now-defunct anti-CPP group Consumers Against Deceptive Fees,

If Ohio required the disclosure of dark-money donors, officials wouldn’t have to resort to subpoenas to uncover the truth. And individual Ohioans who don’t have subpoena power wouldn’t remain in the dark about such hidden financial backing before casting their ballots for candidates and ballot issues.

In voting, as in much else, knowledge is power. That’s why the General Assembly, to empower voters, must require dark-money groups to reveal where their money comes from.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer; Online: https://bit.ly/2LZKmXh