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FirstEnergy looks to the future while weathering a scandal-ridden past

FirstEnergy headquarters in Akron
Tim Ruddell
FirstEnergy headquarters in Akron

One of Ohio's largest utility companies is attempting to turn the page on a turbulent couple of years. But accountability concerns still linger as FirstEnergy looks at its plans for the future.

FirstEnergy made waves in July when it signed a deferred prosecutionagreement, admitting to its role in a multi-million dollar bribery scheme to pass a nuclear power plant bailout and paying a settlement of $230 million.

That deferred prosecution, essentially a plea agreement for companies, stated that the utility paid millions of dollars to former House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford) to pass the bailout, millions to a dark money group to secretly advocate for that bailout, and millions of dollars to former PUCO Chair Sam Randazzo for preferential treatment.

FirstEnergy CEO Steve Strah took over leadership at the company after the accusations against FirstEnergy and former executives first came to light. Strah says it will take time to repair the company’s reputation.

"You really do have to earn it by deeds, not just by words. And I'm starting to feel that as we continue down this path of rebuilding trust and confidence," says Strah.

Strah says they're working to rebuild that trust through steps like creating a new Compliance Oversight Subcommittee and other internal shakeups.

He says these steps are important as the company looks to prepare for future energy issues.

As a transmission and distribution company, Strah says FirstEnergy is keeping a close eye on the development and growth of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, as well as budding technologies like microgrids and battery storage.

"We need to prepare the grid for the entry of those things over the next 10- to 20-year period. So we, as a utility, have a lot of work to do to be able to anticipate those needs and be able to integrate those new opportunities onto our system," says Strah.

FirstEnergy is looking to prepare for the next evolution of energy transmission while weathering the storm of the bribery scandal.

Strah says the company wants to put their past in the rearview mirror and their advocacy for new policies will look different at the Statehouse, where FirstEnergy used to be a lobbying juggernaut.

"We are going to be willing participants, but we're going to participate in that process in a very open manner. And it's going to be probably in a more limited manner than we had previously," Strah says.

"FirstEnergy wants to look in the rearview mirror because they're driving away from the mess they created," says Rachael Belz, executive director for Ohio Citizen Action, a grassroots group advocating for energy consumers.

Belz has had a front-row seat to FirstEnergy's lobbying efforts over the years. She says FirstEnergy should only be advocating for changes in policy if it specifically helps customers.

"The bottom line is FirstEnergy is only ever about FirstEnergy, and they haven't learned their lesson. In my mind, they should still be in timeout," says Belz.

Strah says they will prioritize consumers and that it's important for FirstEnergy to keep moving forward for its more than one million customers and thousands of employees.

"We intend on engaging appropriately and in a very open context in terms of how we can be part of a successful moving ahead," says Strah.

Several components of the bailout bill, HB6, have been revoked. That includes the nuclear subsidies.

As FirstEnergy looks to move ahead, two defendants in the bribery case are preparing for trial in 2022.

Former speaker Householder and former FirstEnergy lobbyist Matt Borges, also the former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, have pleaded "not guilty" in what’s been described as the largest corruption case in state history.

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