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AEP-funded nonprofit provided $900,000 to 'dark money' groups, reports show

A nonprofit organization funded by investor-owned utility American Electric Power Co. Inc. provided a total of $900,000 to "dark money" groups linked to a federal racketeering case in Ohio, according to media reports and tax documents filed with the IRS.

As first reported by the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, tax returns show a nonprofit group called Empowering Ohio's Economy Inc. provided $700,000 to 501(c)(4) group Generation Now and $200,000 to the Coalition for Opportunity & Growth between 2017 and 2019.

An investigation published in July by The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio initially showed AEP provided all of the funding for Empowering Ohio's Economy, which in turn provided $150,000 to Generation Now and $200,000 to the Coalition for Opportunity & Growth. The latest report and a 2019 IRS tax form, among several publicly posted by the Energy and Policy Institute, reveals an additional $550,000 granted to Generation Now in 2019.

The amended tax form also notes that an original document included a $250,000 check that Empowering Ohio's Economy issued to Generation Now "that has not, nor will be, cashed."

Generation Now is charged in a federal indictment that has implicated Akron, Ohio-headquartered FirstEnergy Corp., its FirstEnergy Service Co. subsidiary and the company's political action committee in a federal investigation into more than $60 million in bribes allegedly paid to advocate for the July 2019 passage of House Bill 6, Ohio's nuclear subsidy law. The money was also allegedly used to defeat a ballot initiative to overturn the law.

The case has led to the termination of former FirstEnergy CEO Charles Jones Jr. and other senior company executives, as well as the resignation of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio chairman.

In a mid-November interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, AEP Chairman, President and CEO Nicholas Akins said his company has not been contacted as part of the investigation and reiterated promises to be "transparent and cooperative."

"In our corporate accountability report, we've always said that we do give to 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s. But now, we've changed the process to where we actually say who we're giving to upfront to add that degree of transparency," Akins said. "That's what we've learned from this process."

Akins previously disclosed that since 2015, "AEP contributed a total of $8.7 million to Empowering Ohio's Economy."

"AEP has contributed to a variety of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations to promote economic development and educational programs across our service territories. One such organization is Empowering Ohio's Economy, which was organized to promote economic and business development in Ohio," Akins said on an August earnings call.

"Our contributions to Empowering Ohio's Economy to support its mission were appropriate and lawful," the CEO added.

AEP also issued a written statement in response to the latest reports, in line with its prior comments on the case.

"As we've mentioned previously, based on our understanding of the facts, we have no reason to believe that AEP was involved in any wrongful conduct," AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry wrote in the Dec. 3 statement. "Our contributions to Empowering Ohio's Economy to support its mission were appropriate and lawful. Neither AEP nor any of its subsidiaries made any contributions to Generation Now."

The company also said it is "reviewing best practices around political contributions and contributions to 501(c)(4) entities."