Ohio Democratic lawmakers call for the Department of Justice to probe into the HB 6 scandal

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — Democratic leaders in the Ohio House and Senate want a federal investigation into what happened with the energy bill at the heart of a corruption scandal that has rocked state government. They’ve written to the Department of Justice and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, asking for “assistance in investigating questionable practices and circumstances at the highest levels of state government.”

House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) said the Republican supermajority has refused to fully investigate the scandal involving the sweeping energy law House Bill 6, which passed in 2019.

“The people deserve to know exactly what happened before, during, and ever since House Bill 6 was introduced five years ago, becoming synonymous with corruption, greed, and arrogance,” Russo said.

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said Ohioans continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fees on their utility bills because of the controversial nuclear energy bailout.

“The Republican-led legislature has failed Ohioans when HB 6 was passed and the Republican and the Republican majority continues to fail Ohioans by not taking action to fully repeal HB 6,” Antonio said.

HB 6 had two joint sponsors and 13 co-sponsors, one of whom was Sen. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland). Nine of the 51 House votes and three of the 19 Senate votes for HB 6 came from Democrats. Of that group, only Rep. Terrence Upchurch (D-Cleveland) is still in the House, and former Rep. Catherine Ingram (D-Cincinnati) is now in the Senate.

Since the HB 6 case came to light in June 2020, Democratic lawmakers have proposed bills to fully repeal it and to put in safeguards they believe will stop prevent future corruption. But Russo said the Republican supermajority is blocking all of those efforts.

“There are frankly too many unanswered questions and frankly in this state alone, the very system that manifested this corruption does not possess the capacity, nor it seems the resources or political will, to detach itself from the political realities of Ohio’s control of state government,” Russo said.

Democratic leaders in the Ohio House and Senate at a news conference on Feb. 22, 2024 where they called for a more thorough investigation by federal officials into the House Bill 6 scandal
Democratic leaders in the Ohio House and Senate at a news conference on Feb. 22, 2024 where they called for a more thorough investigation by federal officials into the House Bill 6 scandal. [Ohio House Democratic Caucus]

Republicans respond to Democrats’ call to the Department of Justice

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine, noted the U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating HB 6 since the summer of 2020, when the first criminal charges in connection with the case were brought.

“That was almost four years ago,” Tierney said. “I know whoever was behind this press conference and whoever wrote this press release, they have to hope that the people reading it either have amnesia or just willful ignorance to think that during a four-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice would not be thoroughly investigating any allegations regarding House Bill 6.”

Tierney said the comments from the Democrats are “disrespectful” to the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney and his office and the law enforcement professionals who’ve worked on the case. Tierney said DeWine has cooperated with requests made by investigators.

“Never has anyone in the governor’s office, in the lieutenant governor’s office, has been indicated that they are a target of any law enforcement investigation. There are others who are and certainly some of those have had their day in court, some of those will have their day in court,” Tierney said. “Quite frankly, some of the charges are related to withholding information from our office and withholding information from watchdogs, that obscured the allegations of corruption, that obscured information that might have led to different things being done or different actions being taken.”

There have been attempts by Republicans who opposed the election of Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) as speaker to bring up bills to repeal HB 6, but they’ve gone nowhere. One of the two coal-fired power plants subsidized in HB 6 is in his district.

Stephens said in an interview for “The State of Ohio” in December that he was on a committee that examined HB 6, and noted lawmakers passed House Bill 128 unanimously in 2021. That law repealed the nuclear plant subsidies and a decoupling provision that would have allowed FirstEnergy to collect more from ratepayers to guarantee a yearly revenue of $978 million.

“We’ve already looked at all that repealed the things that were not good. And we went through every single line and and did that,” Stephens said in December. “And it was done, you know, almost three or four years ago now. So there’s been a lot of time to go through.”

John Fortney, a spokesman for Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), said Democrats need to remember the corruption scandal couldn’t have happened without their support for Republican former House Speaker Larry Householder, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence on a federal racketeering charge in connection with HB 6.

“Must be an election year, but the Democrats must have forgotten who voted to make Householder speaker. They did. They even held his Bible for his oath of office,” Fortney said.