Nicholas Akins was still the CEO of AEP and Larry Householder was still the Speaker of the Ohio House when the two met and discussed a planned term limits ballot initiative that would have allowed Householder to extend his grip on power, according to testimony last month by a key prosecution witness at Householder’s racketeering trial.
The federal trial concluded last week with a jury finding Householder guilty of participating in a racketeering conspiracy that involved $60 million in bribes paid by another utility company, FirstEnergy, in exchange for Householder’s championship of House Bill 6. The 2019 Ohio law included a since-repealed $1.3 ratepayer-funded bailout of two nuclear power plants owned by a bankrupt FirstEnergy subsidiary. Another now-repealed provision of HB 6 “recession-proofed” the earnings of FirstEnergy’s Ohio utilities at ratepayers’ expense. State clean energy standards long opposed by FirstEnergy were also rolled back by HB 6, and have not yet been restored by lawmakers.
AEP’s support for Householder was mentioned multiple times during testimony at the trial, but AEP has not been charged with any crime in the ongoing federal corruption investigation in Ohio, nor have any of its employees. AEP is the target of a related investigation by the SEC, as well as a lawsuit filed by some of the company’s own shareholders in response to the scandal.
Akins retired as AEP’s CEO earlier this year, but remains involved in the company’s leadership as executive chairman of its board of directors. Householder was removed from office in 2021, about a year after his arrest.
Householder’s top political consultant Jeff Longstreth pleaded guilty in the case back in 2020, and testified as a witness for the prosecution at Householder’s trial last month.
“Yeah. So it was myself and Mr. Householder met with the CEO of AEP and two of their lobbyists in their office in Columbus,” Longstreth testified at the trial, according to a court reporter’s transcript.
Longstreth said that during the meeting, AEP was asked to contribute money to support a planned ballot initiative that would have weakened Ohio’s term limits law and allowed Householder to potentially remain in power as speaker for an additional 16 years.
“And what was their reaction to the term limits initiative?” Longstreth was asked by federal prosecutor Emily Glatfelter.
Very positive. It was probably a 30-minute meeting. 15 minutes of it, you know, exchanging pleasantries and talking about anything that they had going on and then 15 minutes of us explaining it, and they said sounds great, we’ll get back to you and they did get back to us and said they would be supportive.
Longstreth also described how AEP continues to benefit from HB 6’s ratepayer-funded subsidies for two coal-fired power plants, one of which is located in Indiana. The plants are owned by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC), which counts AEP as its largest equity holder.
“Okay. And was that a reason that AEP was approached for a contribution for the term limits initiative?” Glatfelter asked Longstreth.
“That was one reason, in addition to, you know, Mr. Householder was generally supportive of public utility issues,” Longstreth said in response.
Copies of Householder’s meeting calendars obtained by the Energy and Policy Institute listed a meeting with AEP lobbyists Tom Froehle and Maria Haberman on the morning of February 20, 2020. Akins’ name does not appear in the calendar entry.
A spokesperson for AEP did not respond to multiple emails from the Energy and Policy Institute seeking comment on Longstreth’s testimony, which described the meeting with AEP as part of an effort by Householder’s team in early 2020 to raise money for the term limits ballot initiative that largely focused on FirstEnergy and AEP.
Longstreth testified that, ultimately, the term limits ballot iniative “never happened” because “COVID hit” and “then we were arrested in July.” But the effort brought in $2.5 million from FirstEnergy and AEP before it was abandoned.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy, a 501(c)(4) group funded solely by AEP, later disclosed that it paid $500,000 to the Coalition for Term Limits Inc in 2020 in an annual Form 990 report to the IRS. Froehle served on Empowering Ohio’s Economy’s board of directors.
Between 2017 and 2019, Empowering Ohio’s Economy contributed $700,000 to Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) group controlled by Longstreth and Householder that was used to conceal bribe payments from FirstEnergy. Generation Now pleaded guilty in the racketeering case in 2021.
Empowering Ohio’s Economy also contributed $200,000 to the Coalition for Growth & Opportunity, another group involved, but not charged, in the Householder case.
FirstEnergy, as part of its agreement with federal prosecutors, admitted that it paid $2 million in early 2020 to support Householder’s term limits initiative. The $2 million was routed through Partners for Progress, a 501(c)(4) group that was solely funded by FirstEnergy. FirstEnergy also admitted that the term limits initiative, if successful, would have given Householder “additional time as Speaker to further FirstEnergy Corp.’s interests through official action.”
At the trial last month, Longstreth testified that he thought the term limits initiative would have cost $15-20 million. He also described how Householder had spoken to Charles Jones, who was FirstEnergy’s CEO at the time, to secure FirstEnergy’s support for the initiative. Jones was later terminated by FirstEnergy in response to the bribery scandal.
“Kind of went without saying that they support anything that’s good for the Speaker because anything that’s good for the Speaker is good for them,” Longstreth said when asked why FirstEnergy would support the initiative.
Longstreth then described how HB 6 benefitted FirstEnergy, in response to questions from Glatfelter.
Neil Clark, a lobbyist who was also charged in the Householder case but committed suicide in Florida about a year and a half before the trial began, wrote in a tell-all book that AEP committed to pay a total of $5 million “for an upcoming ballot issue.” Clark described a $500,000 payment from Empowering Ohio’s Economy as the first of ten installments to meet AEP’s commitment.
AEP spokesperson Tammy Rideout previously described the utility company’s contributions to Empowering Ohio’s Economy as “appropriate and lawful” and sought to distance AEP from any specific contributions made by Empowering Ohio’s Economy.
“Empowering Ohio’s Economy is a separate organization and you should direct any questions regarding their contribution process to them,” Rideout told the Energy and Policy Institute in 2021, after AEP received the first of two subpoenas from the SEC.