Ohio froze an ex-utility regulator’s $8M in assets. Lawyers disagree over whether it’s legal


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Lawyers disagreed sharply in arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday over whether $8 million in assets belonging to the state’s former top utility regulator should have been frozen after he was caught up in a sweeping Statehouse bribery investigation.

The state’s attorney told justices that Sam Randazzo was “spending down criminal proceeds” when Republican Attorney General Dave Yost moved in to freeze his assets.

“Somebody receives these criminal proceeds, bribe money, as an employee of the state to take action that benefited FirstEnergy for billions of dollars, and he just wants to take that money, run off with it, spend it down, use it, move it around, give things to his children, so that he’s judgment-proof at the end of the day,” the state’s lawyer Charles Miller told the court. “And that has to be stopped.”

A Franklin County judge froze Randazzo’s assets in August 2021. Yost made the request after Randazzo, the former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, appeared to be scrambling to unload personal assets. He transferred a home worth $500,000 to his son and liquidated other properties worth a combined $4.8 million, sending some $3 million of the proceeds to his lawyers in California and Ohio.

Miller acknowledged Wednesday that those amounts exceeded the $4.3 million bribe that Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. has admitted to paying Randazzo in exchange for favorable treatment just before he took the helm of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. But Miller told the justices that the law allows the government to freeze up to triple such an amount — or about $13 million in this case. He said the state settled on $8 million as a reasonable estimate of Randazzo’s wealth.

Randazzo appealed the original freeze, though, and a three-judge panel reversed the lower court’s decision in September and unfroze his assets. It is that decision — stayed since December — that justices are revisiting.

Randazzo resigned as PUCO chair in November 2020 after FBI agents searched his Columbus home, close on the heels of the arrest of then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder. He has not been charged in conjunction with the House Bill 6 scandal, which remains under investigation.

His attorney, Roger Sugarman, argued that the state needed more than “unsupported evidence” of a bribe, which surfaced as part of a federal case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and others, to block Randazzo’s access to his property and cash.

The bribe that FirstEnergy said it paid Randazzo was part of a scheme that a jury determined was led by Householder to win the speakership, elect allies, pass a $1 billion bailout of two aging FirstEnergy-affiliated nuclear plants and block a referendum to repeal the bailout bill.

But the admissions FirstEnergy made in its deferred prosecution agreement have no bearing on Randazzo, Sugarman said.

“FirstEnergy doesn’t bind Mr. Randazzo in any way, shape or form,” he told the court. “FirstEnergy bought its way out of a criminal prosecution by agreeing to pay $230 million, and they made some other admissions. But, if you look, when you read our brief and look at the record, every statement made against Mr. Randazzo in that case that was relied upon is hearsay.”

Householder, a Republican, and lobbyist Matt Borges were convicted on racketeering charges in March for their roles in a $60 million bribery scheme. This week, a judge in Cincinnati will announce their sentences — up to 20 years in prison.

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