AEP vows dark money disclosure amid Ohio bribery scandal

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, August 9, 2020

American Electric Power Co. pledged yesterday to improve disclosure of dark money contributions after allegations that just such a group funded by another Ohio utility is at the center of a $60 million racketeering scheme to influence state energy policy.

CEO Nick Akins said AEP isn’t among the entities referenced in court filings that outline allegations against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R), nor has the company been contacted by investigators.

Fallout from the scandal continues in Ohio after Householder and four other individuals were arrested and charged with taking part in a plan to use $60 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and affiliates to get the speaker elected and pass a $1.2 billion nuclear bailout (Energywire, July 22).

At the center of the plan was a social welfare group called Generation Now that prosecutors say was run by Householder to carry out his scheme. Such groups aren’t regulated by the Federal Election Commission and aren’t required to disclose their donors under Section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code.

AEP didn’t contribute to Generation Now directly. But Akins said AEP did contribute $8.7 million to its own 501(c)(4), Empowering Ohio’s Economy, beginning in 2015. And that group did contribute $150,000 to Generation Now.

The AEP social welfare group defines its mission in IRS filings as promoting economic and business development across its Ohio service area.

“Our contributions to Empowering Ohio’s Economy to support its mission were appropriate and lawful,” Akins said during the company’s quarterly earnings call.

Akins said AEP also lobbied for H.B. 6 last spring because the company thought the bill was good policy and maintained important “fuel diversity” for Ohio.

H.B. 6, signed into law a year ago by Gov. Mike DeWine (R), subsidized the state’s two nuclear plants to keep them running; provided $100 million for funding solar development; and cemented in law payments for two aging coal plants owned by a group of utilities, including AEP.

“We are not aware of any information suggesting that AEP’s participation in the process was anything other than lawful and ethical,” the CEO said.

However, to address transparency concerns about corporate donations to dark money groups, AEP will provide expanded disclosures in its corporate accountability report beginning this year.

The report, published annually in May, already includes lists of lobbying expenditures and trade association dues and payments.

Akins said the company is prepared to engage in a debate about the future of Ohio energy policy.

DeWine and many other elected officials have joined the chorus of voices urging the Legislature to repeal H.B. 6 (Energywire, July 24). Bills to do that have been filed in both the Ohio House and Senate.

AEP faces “minimal” financial impact if the bill is repealed, even if it’s not replaced with a similar policy, Akins said.

The company has the largest stake among eight owners of the Ohio Valley Electric Corp., which runs a pair of 60-year-old coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River. H.B. 6 included monthly surcharges on utility bills to subsidize the plants.