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Keeping their hands out of cookie jar

It seems as though FirstEnergy Corp. may have resorted to a little creative accounting to hide the extent to which it was spending on lobbying — and what it was trying to accomplish. But federal regulators have concluded at least $1.5 million of what was spent on “lobbying” Ohio lawmakers for a nuclear plant bailout came from ratepayers.

The company spent a total of $71 million on what some have labeled downright bribery. In fact, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates were arrested in 2020 during a federal investigation of the matter. Householder has pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy charge. Two others have pleaded guilty. Another has died by suicide.

But FirstEnergy seemed to be getting away with just a slap on the wrist at first. It agreed in July to pay $230 million in penalties to avoid prosecution. After finishing an audit, federal regulators told the company it owes its customers some money, too. The audit concluded FirstEnergy was overcharging customers as a result of the improper accounting it was using to conceal its lobbying tactics.

FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin said the utility accepted the findings and recommendations in the audit and that changes in its accounting practices have been made or are underway. That is good news. But too often large corporations think of penalties such as these as simply the cost of doing business the way they want to do it.

Meanwhile, too many politicians are willing to be recipients of such “lobbying” efforts, as they too have come to believe it is simply the way things get done in centers of government.

Perhaps regulators will use the FirstEnergy case as inspiration for working even harder to ensure that corporations, lawmakers and public officials keep their hand out of the cookie jars taxpayers — and ratepayers — have no choice but to keep filled.

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