Monday, October 26, 2020

Ohio lawmakers withheld documents from FBI in bailout bill corruption scandal


The Ohio House of Representatives withheld more than two dozen records from federal investigators and the public involving House Bill 6, claiming that various email attachments and other documents were a matter of attorney-client and legislative privilege.

The move came in response to a federal subpoena and a public records request that sought information on the bill, which is the focus of a federal public corruption investigation, and previously failed legislation on the issue.

The list of withheld documents was released along with more than 1,000 pages of documents related to the controversial nuclear power plant bailout. The list includes email correspondence between House attorneys Heather Blessing and Paul Disantis and several lawmakers, including the bill’s sponsors, state representatives Jamie Callender and Shane Wilkin, both Republicans.

The emails include possible amendments and other documents pertaining to the bill that Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law last July. The correspondences began weeks before the bill passed in May 2019 and through January of this year.

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The FBI had subpoenaed documents related to the bill, a $1.3 billion bailout for two nuclear plants passed last year. FirstEnergy Corp. had sought the help when its subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions, owned the plants. It filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and Energy Harbor now owns the plants.

Taylor Jach, a House Republican spokeswoman, said the documents were withheld from the FBI, as well as and The Plain Dealer, which sought the records.

She said the attorney-client and legislative privilege they’re citing in withholding the release of the records exists between each member and the House attorney or legislative staffer who corresponded with those individual members.

“This is boilerplate attorney-client privilege and legislative privilege,” she said. “No one has asked that this privilege should be waived in this extraordinary circumstance. I am sure members would happily consider doing that.”

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On the release of the records in general, the House said in a statement: “Today, the Ohio House of Representatives, in response to a federal subpoena, submitted to the Department of Justice records related to House Bill 6,” said a statement the House released Thursday. The Ohio House is continuing to comply with the subpoena for records and cooperating with federal authorities in this ongoing matter as part of its commitment to restore trust and integrity to the House.”

The fact that the information was not made public angered at least one government watchdog.

“There is something very odd about withholding information about House Bill 6,” said Catherine Turcer, the executive director of Common Cause Ohio.

“Documents about the creation of a law should be a matter of public record. We should have access to that information so that we would understand the decisions that went into policy-making.”

An FBI affidavit says FirstEnergy and its affiliates funneled more than $60 million in bribes to then-House Speaker Larry Householder and four allies. They were indicted last month on federal racketeering charges.

FirstEnergy and its affiliates have not been charged. FirstEnergy has said it is cooperating with authorities.

The federal subpoena, obtained through a public records request, initially sought records related to four nuclear bailout bills, including House Bill 6.

Three of those bills were introduced in 2017, but they failed to become law.

Besides citing attorney-client privilege, the House attorneys also said they withheld the documents because of legislative privilege.

Under state law, records that can be withheld also include working papers, preliminary drafts, correspondence, proposed amendments or “other documents in whatever form or format prepared by legislative staff for a member of the general assembly or for general assembly staff.”


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