Consumers’ lawyer seeks refunds as FirstEnergy ratings fall

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The lawyer for FirstEnergy’s 1.8 million residential electric customers in Ohio stepped in Wednesday to try to assure they get refunds should state legislators or the courts halt the charges the utility giant was expecting as part of a now-tainted nuclear bailout bill.

Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston made his request regarding the House Bill 6 charges in a filing with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. He said he doesn’t want to see a “travesty of justice” similar to that of 2016, when a half-billion in charges to FirstEnergy ratepayers were found inappropriate and overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court — but no refund was delivered to consumers.

Weston also sought refundability rights for AEP, Duke and Dayton Power & Light customers.

His action came in the wake of all of the Big 3 ratings agencies — Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch — downgrading FirstEnergy’s credit rating and less than a week after the commission’s chairman, Sam Randazzo, resigned under a cloud created by a corporate filing by the utility.

In its downgrade announcement Tuesday, Moody’s cited among its reasons for concern FirstEnergy’s revelation in a Thursday U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing of a $4.3 million payment to the firm of an Ohio government official fitting Randazzo’s description.

“The disclosure of a payment by FirstEnergy to a government official who directly regulated the company’s Ohio utilities is likely to increase both regulatory risk and financial uncertainty for both FirstEnergy and its Ohio utility subsidiaries,” Moody’s analyst Jairo Chung said in a statement.

FirstEnergy spokeswoman Jennifer Young said the company doesn’t comment on ratings actions.

Fitch, which downgraded the company Friday, cited the $60 million bribery investigation surrounding the nuclear bailout bill, House Bill 6, as well as numerous related investigations and audits, the related recent firings of several top FirstEnergy executives, including CEO Chuck Jones. It also said uncertainty is being created by the fact that HB6 “appears to be in play.”

The fallout from Randazzo’s resignation was also being felt in other ways.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center asked the commission on Tuesday to vacate all of its orders involving the environmental group that were issued during Randazzo’s tenure as chairman.

“There’s a reasonable perception that a $4 million payout would raise doubts about Chairman Randazzo’s impartiality in cases before the commission involving FirstEnergy,” said Rob Kelter, an attorney for the environmental group. “The public has a right to fair decisions regarding monopoly rates and services. That fairness requires a commission’s decision process without any undue influence from the utilities it regulates.”

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Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo contributed to this report.

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