Editorial: Prosecution of individuals is biggest warning

A “stern warning” to other corporations and corporate executives is one of the things an FBI official said the federal agency hoped to achieve with the recent agreement in which FirstEnergy Corp.will pay $230 million stemming from an Ohio bribery case.

Really? A stern warning?

What would send an even stronger warning to anyone tempting to engage in such actions would be the personal accountability, including criminal prosecution or prison time, for every individual involved in this scheme.

The Akron-based energy giant at the center of a $60 million bribery scheme in Ohio admitted July 22 to using dark money groups to fund the effort, and agreed to pay $230 million and other conditions so prosecutors won’t forge ahead with a criminal case against the company.

Authorities charged FirstEnergy with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, alleging payoffs to public officials to back a $1 billion subsidy that would have had taxpayers helping the company prop up two aging nuclear plants.

Under terms of the agreement, that charge could be dropped in three years if the company complies with the terms of the deal, such as continuing to cooperate with investigators looking into the kickbacks to officials, who included the Ohio House speaker and a lobbyist who became the state’s top utility regulator.

The deal, signed off by FirstEnergy’s president and CEO, comes in a scandal that has affected business and politics across Ohio since the arrests a year ago of then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates. Government officials say Householder orchestrated a plan to accept corporate money for personal and political use in exchange for passing nuclear bailout legislation and scuttling an effort to repeal the bill.

Half of FirstEnergy’s $230 million penalty will go to the federal government. The other half will be paid to a program that benefits Ohio’s regulated utility customers, Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel said. FirstEnergy also has to forfeit about $6 million seized from the accounts of one of the dark money groups, Partners for Progress.

Under the agreement, FirstEnergy also must make public any new corporate payments it’s aware of that were intended to influence a public official and continue an internal makeover of its ethics practices. It also must issue a public statement describing it intentionally used dark money groups to hide the scheme.

“I hope that today’s announcement serves as a stern warning to other corporations and corporate executives who would sell their integrity to a public official, a group of public officials,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman, calling the probe a historic public corruption investigation that “deserves historic remedies.”

Patel called the $230 million penalty probably the largest ever secured by his office.


But what might be lacking from the agreement is personal responsibility — not just for the company as a whole, but for the individuals directly involved in the scheme.

Patel did say that the settlement won’t preclude prosecutors from pursuing any individuals whose actions are described in detail in settlement documents, though without being named. Indeed, that must happen. If this utility company’s negotiated cash settlement negates prosecution of involved individuals, it would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

Frankly, it’s that prosecution that would be the most heeded stern warning.

— Youngstown Vindicator, Aug. 1