What the FirstEnergy scandal reveals about the state's politics

This story begins, as far too many do, with Donald Trump. In June, former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges co-founded the Right Side super PAC, a political action committee with the goal of convincing disaffected Republicans to oust President Trump by voting for Joe Biden. I wanted to find out why Borges went from a tepid Trump voter in 2016 to a fervent opponent, getting himself all but shunned by his party’s pro-Trump power structure. If he failed to regain control for classic conservatives by helping to elect Biden, was there any future for him in the Ohio GOP?

So I called Borges on July 15. He said Trump had become the swamp he’d sworn to drain. He talked about how taxpayer money, party money and Trump’s campaign money gets funneled back into his own private businesses—and how Republicans’ heads would explode if a Democrat were doing it. “This isn’t a partisan issue,” Borges said. “Corruption is corruption. He is corrupt.”

Six days later, Borges was arrested and charged with racketeering, along with then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and three others. Federal prosecutors allege that the Akron-based utility FirstEnergy paid “Householder’s Enterprise” nearly $61 million, which was funneled through Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn’t disclose donors. That dark money went to help elect state reps loyal to Householder, giving him the speakership he’d desperately sought and enough votes to pass House Bill 6, which provided a $1.3 billion bailout to FirstEnergy’s nuclear plants. The Enterprise then allegedly spent Generation Now funds to crush a ballot initiative aiming to repeal HB 6, using bribery and a deluge of fearmongering political ads, all while laundering money. It was, to borrow a word, corruption.

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Borges, then a lobbyist for FirstEnergy Solutions, a former FirstEnergy subsidiary, is accused of playing a central role in stopping the HB 6 referendum. Prosecutors allege he attempted to gather inside information by giving a $15,000 bribe to one of its campaign workers, who wore a wire for the FBI. Borges’ attorney, Karl Schneider, issued a statement in late July saying that Borges’ involvement had been “wildly overstated,” the accusations were wrong, he wasn’t part of any enterprise, and he will be exonerated. Borges told me via email he was shutting down Right Side, and he pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in early August.

That a crusader against Trump now stands accused of corruption only seems to confirm the growing belief of how widespread it is. The Pew Research Center reported that public trust in the federal government was just 17 percent in 2019, and Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index shows the U.S. backsliding in recent years. There’s no shortage of local examples, from the FBI investigation that led to the resignation of Ohio Speaker Cliff Rosenberger in 2018 (no charges have been filed, and he has denied allegations) to the ECOT charter school scandal to the 2016 extortion conviction of Columbus lobbyist John Raphael in the Redflex camera case.

David E. Freel, a former director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, says that a long period of single-party dominance—like Republicans in the Statehouse or Democrats at City Hall—often precedes corruption. Abundant power and money, combined with a lack of transparency, are also major factors. (In the HB 6 case, the FBI recorded defendant Neil Clark, a Republican lobbyist, saying that FirstEnergy had “too much money, too much power.”) Freel and Catherine Turcer, executive director of the government-accountability nonprofit Common Cause Ohio, say the keys to prevention are increased disclosure of public officials’ financing and transparency about lobbyists seeking to influence them and the public.

In the wake of the HB 6 scandal, Ohio legislators have introduced three bills that would shine more light on donors and expenditures. Dark money isn’t the only problem, though. Unlimited super PAC funds, which are publicly reported, have flooded elections. Turcer also decries Ohio’s $13,292 limit on direct contributions as being too high. If money is speech, then some people have way more speech than others, she says, and it becomes something like “legalized bribery.”

Actual bribery—the very illegal kind—is among the many criminal accusations against the Enterprise, but some of the most striking sections of the affidavit describe tactics that aren’t unlawful. Instead, the document reveals a bone-deep belief in the transactional governance that Americans love to watch in movies—complete with the profane dialogue of a David Mamet script—but should despise in their elected leaders. It’s a trip into the cynical underbelly of modern politics, where $38 million is spent to convince people it’s in their best interest to reject even the chance to vote on whether the state should hand out $1.3 billion from ratepayers to one very fat benefactor.

In our mid-July call, Borges said the country can’t heal until the cancer is removed from the White House. That’s true. Trump’s dismantling of checks on power and his endless scandals reveal an indifference to what constitutes corruption. But the case against Householder’s Enterprise indicates that the disease of self-interest as policy extends into the arteries of the heartland, too. Maybe it’s the exception, and politics are less corrupt than people believe, but what’s undeniable is that the electoral system is a commodity that many insiders are determined to buy and sell. The people should at least know who the highest bidders are.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story inaccurately referred to Matt Borges as a FirstEnergy lobbyist. It has been corrected.

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