New Ohio Speaker Has His Own Ethics Issues Involving FirstEnergy

Bob Cupp, who replaced indicted former speaker Larry Householder, was the subject of a judicial ethics complaint involving campaign contributions from the PAC of FirstEnergy, one of his top donors and the company that allegedly bribed Householder.

New Ohio Speaker Has His Own Ethics Issues Involving FirstEnergy
Fireworks at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

After Ohio’s House speaker was indicted for taking bribes from energy companies in what a U.S. attorney called “likely the largest bribery scheme ever perpetrated against the state of Ohio,” a new speaker with deep financial ties to the same energy companies has been appointed.

On July 30, Republicans elected Rep. Bob Cupp to replace indicted Larry Householder as the next speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Cupp was first selected as speaker in a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus, and then publicly elected by an Ohio House vote of 55-38, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting no. 

The energy companies accused of bribing Householder and funneling dark money to Generation Now, a Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) group, have been major donors to Cupp over his career, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics.

FirstEnergy (“Company A” in the Householder charging document) has been Cupp’s sixth-highest donor, with its PAC contributing a total of $21,650 over seven elections. Murray Energy, the now-bankrupt Ohio coal company that was also involved (as “Company B”) in the racketeering scheme by providing $100,000 in “dark money,” has contributed $11,325 to Cupp through its PAC. The PAC of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, of which First Energy and Murray Energy are members, has donated $12,660. 

American Electric Power (AEP), a Columbus-based utility company, also acknowledged having funded a dark-money group, Empowering Ohio’s Economy, Inc., that in turn contributed a total of $150,000 to Generation Now in 2017 and 2018. AEP is another energy company with an active statehouse lobbying practice among Cupp’s top career donors, with its PAC having contributed $12,825 to his campaigns.

Cupp previously served on the Ohio Supreme Court from 2007 through 2012 and served four terms in the Ohio Senate from 1985 through 2000. Cupp won his current House seat representing Lima, in the northwest area of the state, in 2014, defeating Lima City Council member Kurt Neeper in the Republican primary and then taking nearly three-quarters of the general election vote. 

Cupp has faced his share of ethics allegations stemming from his energy industry donations. During his unsuccessful 2012 re-election race for Supreme Court, Cupp’s Democratic challenger, retired judge William O’Neill, filed a formal complaint alleging that Cupp and another justice, Republican-appointed Terrence O’Donnell, violated Canon 1 of the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct by taking campaign contributions from a party of interest in a case. 

In the 2012 case in question, an attorney participated who was representing power provider Ohio Edison, which was owned by FirstEnergy, the Akron-based energy company at the center of the Householder bribery scandal. Two weeks after oral arguments, FirstEnergy’s PAC donated $6,300 to each of the re-election campaigns of Cupp and O’Donnell. Four weeks later, Cupp and O’Donnell joined a majority opinion favoring Ohio Edison in the case, O’Neill’s formal grievance detailed. 

Catherine Turcer, executive director of the non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group Common Cause Ohio, told Sludge that Ohio has a long history of justices hearing the cases of their campaign contributors and not stepping away. “It’s fairly unusual for justices to recuse themselves, and when they do, we don’t know why they recuse themselves,” Turcer said. “In 2012, [then-candidate William] O’Neill put it out there: he made it clear that he wanted to focus on judicial independence, not receive campaign contributions, and identified it as a problem.

“Just about everyone would say it doesn’t make sense to allow participants to give money to a referee in the middle of the game, it seems so incongruous—it’s hard to understand it’s even possible that we let judges hear the cases of their major donors,” Turcer said.

In a 2006 article, The New York Times found that in the 215 cases with the most direct potential conflicts of interest from parties giving campaign contributions, Ohio justices recused themselves just 9 times. On average, Ohio judges voted in favor of contributors 70% of the time over the 12-year period studied. 

“Corporations and wealthy donors have spent money for a long time to get pro-business candidates on the Court,” Turcer said. But in his 2012 race against O’Neill, “Bob Cupp was doing what is business as usual and met an opponent who bucked the system and said this is not appropriate, and the opponent won.” O’Neill ended up taking 52.5% of the 2012 general election vote to Cupp’s 47.5%.

While Cupp did not support now-indicted Larry Householder for House speaker in 2019, he did vote in favor of Householder’s FirstEnergy bailout bill, HB 6, which passed the Ohio House by a vote of 51-38 in July 2019 and was quickly signed into law by Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. Shortly after the vote, emails obtained by The Columbus Dispatch revealed that Cupp had not been eager to publicize a private flight at taxpayers’ expense that had been arranged for him and two other representatives to make it back from a conference in Chicago to vote on the bailout, though the flight ended up being canceled the night before. HB 6, which has not yet been repealed, would send a billion dollars from Ohio ratepayers to subidize two nuclear energy plants operated by the company formerly known as FirstEnergy, now called Energy Harbor, through 2026. Householder was unanimously removed from office after his indictment for taking bribes from FirstEnergy through a dark money group on July 30.

In announcing the federal charges last month, David DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, broadly addressed the question of whether FirstEnergy or its corporate leadership could be charged. The July 16 indictment named Householder, four political associates, and dark money nonprofit group Generation Now as defendants. “We’re going to continue to investigate this, and we’re going to investigate wherever it leads,” DeVillers said in a press conference. Michael Benza, a professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law, told regional news site that the bribery investigation, now public, could proceed to subpoena more of FirstEnergy’s financial records. 

In Cupp’s most recent House election in 2018, FirstEnergy’s PAC donated $2,350 and American Electric Power’s PAC donated $2,500, according to records from the National Institute on Money in Politics (NIMP). In the 2016 election, FirstEnergy’s PAC gave $5,000 to Cupp’s campaign. In 2014, FirstEnergy contributed $2,500 to Cupp and American Electric Power’s PAC donated $1,000. 

Turcer points out that these major energy companies, which have previously used dark money spending to influence elections, have been big donors not only to statehouse candidates but also to Ohio Supreme Court candidates. “It’s not just one bad company, it’s ongoing donations to craft utilities policies that benefit the utilities and hurt consumers,” Turcer said. To mitigate the effects of dark money mailers and xenophobic campaign ads, Turcer said, the Ohio government should “require disclosures of independent expenditures spent on ads, identifying the top three donors. Get to the original source of payment of ads.” 

In an op-ed last week, Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a fellow at the Brennan Center policy institute and professor of law at Stetson University College of Law, surveyed the efforts to shed light on dark money spending in Ohio after the corruption arrests by the FBI. “One bill would make certain nonprofits disclose political spending,” Prof. Torres-Spelliscy wrote. “Another bill would require disclosure from entities that make contributions to candidates in Ohio. Either would be an improvement on the dark money free-for-all that allowed the $60 million bribery scheme to flourish for years under everyone’s noses. A third bill, which clearly has Householder in mind, would allow for the forfeiture of state retirement benefits for conviction of bribery or other federal crimes.”

Dark money spending has ramped up in state Supreme Court races in many states, according to a December 2019 report by the Brennan Center. Looking at elections from 2017 to 2018, researchers found that the group Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, which supported Republican or conservative candidates, put out nearly $300,000 in nontransparent spending, placing it seventh among the top interest group spenders across the states studied.

Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a co-author of that report, told Sludge, “Ohio’s Supreme Court elections have a history of campaign contributions from companies with a big financial stake in the court’s decisions.” The Brennan Center is tracking dark money spending in state judicial races, which typically start arriving closer to the general Election Day in November.

“If we are going to elect judges, those elections have to be paired with strong disclosure laws and rules for when judges must step aside from cases involving big donors,” Keith said. “Any disclosure laws have to be strong enough to guarantee that voters know the true source of the money, and not allow sophisticated donors to hide behind layers of opaque groups.” 

On whether Cupp, as the new speaker, will take steps to reform dark money rules and strengthen transparency for voters around state election spending, Turcer says she is hopeful. 

“This is a moment of reckoning for every member of both chambers, we deserve better accountability and better transparency for voters and consumers,” Turcer said. “Cupp is one of the old guard and his experience is in a system that is really broken, but I believe Bob Cupp will step up to the plate and do the right thing.”

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