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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Householder Scandal Has DeWine Under Siege

mike dewine
John Minchillo

This is really not a very good time to be Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

He is getting it from all sides – from two Democrats who want his job and from a fellow Republican who wants to take him out in next May's gubernatorial primary.

The 74-year-old governor is even getting hammered from beyond the grave, in the form of longtime GOP lobbyist Neil Clark, who committed suicide in February, months after being indicted with former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and three others in a $63 million bribery scheme.

What they all have in common is that they are asking hard questions about what DeWine knew and when he knew it regarding FirstEnergy company’s bribery scheme to convince the legislation to pass a $1.6 billion bailout of two financially troubled nuclear power plants.

DeWine insists he knew nothing of the wrongdoing until last July when Householder et al. were indicted after a thorough – and ongoing – investigation by the Acting U.S. Attorney for Southern Ohio and the FBI

There are unquestionable signs that the federal investigation is getting closer to the heart of the DeWine administration.

At the outset of the investigation, federal prosecutors made a point of saying that DeWine was not a target of the investigation.

But, last week, when federal prosecutors announced a settlement deal with FirstEnergy Corp., Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel wouldn't answer the question of whether the governor was part of the investigation.

Last November, FBI agents raided the home of former electric utility lobbyist Sam Randazzo, who had been appointed by DeWine as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). Last week, we learned in court documents that FirstEnergy paid Randazzo, who resigned not long after the raid, $4.3 million before DeWine appointed him.

DeWine told Ohio Capitol Journal this week that while he knew nothing about the $4.3 million payment, "everybody knew" that Randazzo was a lobbyist for electric utilities, including FirstEnergy.

Putting a lobbyist for electric utilities in charge of PUCO would be the textbook definition of the fox guarding the chicken coop. But that's what DeWine did.

Randazzo hasn't been charged with any criminal offenses, as of today. But, clearly, federal prosecutors have their eye on him. Randazzo's lawyers say he never did anything as PUCO chair to further FirstEnergy's plans; and the DeWine administration says no one in the governor's office or inner circle have been interviewed by federal investigators.

But it could still turn out to be a big problem for DeWine.

"There is a whole lot of mud out there, and it's hard to stay clean,'' said David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. "A utilities lobbyist is your choice to run the PUCO? It just looks bad on the face of it."

Meanwhile, DeWine's political foes – both Democrats and Republicans – are taking almost daily pot shots at the governor, holding his feet to the fire over the Householder/FirstEnergy scandal, the largest in the 218-year history of Ohio.

Democrat Nan Whaley, the Dayton mayor, has been all over DeWine.

On the day of FirstEnergy's agreement with prosecutors, Whaley issued a statement saying "today's charges make clear that this corruption case reaches the highest level of government in Ohio. Enough is enough. It's time for Governor DeWine to come clean about his knowledge and involvement in this scandal."

Whaley campaign spokeswoman Courtney Rice said DeWine "has all but admitted to allowing Randazzo to remain in his taxpayer-salaried job position for up to six weeks, doing FirstEnergy's bidding, after the bribe was uncovered."

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, a Democrat who is traveling the state and raising money for a gubernatorial race, says much the same thing as Whaley has been saying.

"At the end of the day, he appointed a lobbyist who fleeced the people of this state,'' Cranley said. "If I were Mike DeWine, I would seriously consider just getting out of this re-election campaign and retire."

Former Northeast Ohio congressman Jim Renacci, who plans to take on DeWine in the GOP gubernatorial primary, has been burning up Twitter and issuing media statements lambasting DeWine for months now, on an almost daily basis.

"Thanks to Mike DeWine's pay-to-play schemes, Ohio has been named the most corrupt state in the nation,'' Renacci said. "After accepting over one million in tainted money from a close ally, DeWine returned the favor in the form of a $1.3 billion bailout on the taxpayer's dime."

Shortly before he committed suicide, Clark, who was indicted along with Householder and three other Republicans, published a book on Amazon in which he made an unsubstantiated claim that DeWine agreed to accept a $5 million contribution from FirstEnergy in exchange for supporting HB 6.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney told reporters that the governor called the Clark accusation "absurd, untrue and ridiculous."

Yes, DeWine signed House Bill 6, the bailout bill into law, after it was passed by the Republican-dominated legislature. Later, after the Household scandal broke, he called for HB 6 to be repealed.

None of this is meant to say that DeWine will find himself indicted or in political hot water to the point where he can't win reelection.

He is a savvy politician; he has been doing this for a half century. He raises money like a televangelist on steroids; and gets high marks generally for his handling of the pandemic. The only people who seem to oppose him on the pandemic response are Trump Republicans.

It would be foolish to count him out. Whaley and Cranley know that; Renacci should.

But there is no question this Ohio GOP scandal is something that could make him damaged goods as a candidate.

"There is not a single thing he could say to make this better,'' Niven said. "Mike DeWine wants to project the image of a kindly old grandfather whose wife will serve you a nice slice of homemade pie, right from the oven.

"The truth is a little more complicated," Niven said. "There's a dark side to politics too."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.