Davis Bees Nuclear Power Station with electricity pylons, Ohio

By Marty Schladen and Ohio Capital Journal

If you asked most people to start up a dark money group and then funnel more than $1 million through it and into another such group, they’d probably want to know what it was going to be used for.

But now that the second 501(c)(4) dark-money group, Generation Now, has pleaded guilty to being at the heart of one of the biggest bribery and money laundering scandals in Ohio history, Gov. Mike DeWine is refusing to discuss what one of his top aides was told when he formed the first dark money group, Partners for Progress.

Generation Now pleaded guilty earlier this month to being the major conduit of money between Akron-based FirstEnergy and related organizations and the effort to pass House Bill 6, a $1.3 billion bailout that mostly went to two nuclear plants FirstEnergy started spinning off in 2016. DeWine signed the bill into law in 2019.

Last summer, federal authorities arrested then-Speaker Larry Householder and four associates as part of the scandal and two of the associates later pleaded guilty.

As he announced the arrests, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers stressed that the dark money made the massive scandal possible.

“I don’t see how (the conspiracy) could possibly have happened” without it, DeVillers said.

The feds haven’t accused DeWine’s aide, Legislative Affairs Director Dan McCarthy of wrongdoing, but they refer to his dark-money group in an affidavit supporting Householder’s arrest as “Energy Pass-Through.”

Among the activities Generation Now pleaded guilty to was engaging in transactions “designed to conceal the nature, source, ownership and control of the payments” from FirstEnergy and associated companies.

But DeWine and McCarthy don’t want to discuss whether McCarthy intended to obscure that FirstEnergy was bankrolling an effort to prop up nuclear plants it was spinning off.

Asked last week about the matter, DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney pointed to a statement McCarthy issued last summer when The Cincinnati Enquirer first reported that he’d started a dark money group that helped fund the HB 6 effort.

In it, McCarthy explained that in addition to his lobby work for FirstEnergy, he had also worked with people who had adversarial relationships with Householder and one of his indicted associates, Neil Clark, so “any insinuation I was involved in this disgusting scheme is without merit.” 

But he didn’t explain why he founded Partners for Progress two days after the founding of Generation Now, or why a week later his dark money group got $5 million from FirstEnergy and within a month it was forwarding some of that money to Generation Now. 

In early 2019, McCarthy stopped lobbying for FirstEnergy and resigned as president of Partners in Progress to become DeWine’s legislative affairs director. The following October, while McCarthy was advocating for HB 6 in that capacity, FirstEnergy and associates wired $20 million to McCarthy’s former money group and it forwarded $10 million of that to Generation Now the same month, the federal affidavit said.

Despite these and other revelations about DeWine appointees, DeWine on Tuesday declined to give a more complete explanation of what McCarthy believed he was doing when he started Partners for Progress and began funneling money into a now-guilty dark money group.

“As far as I know, Dan McCarthy has been well-respected for many, many years, long before he started working for me as our legislative director and I have faith in his integrity,” DeWine said.

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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