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FirstEnergy Dumps Two Top Lawyers Amid Federal Bribery Probe (1)

Nov. 9, 2020, 4:47 PM; Updated: Nov. 9, 2020, 9:28 PM

FirstEnergy Corp. has parted ways with its two top in-house lawyers a week after terminating its former CEO in the wake of a federal corruption scandal.

Chief Legal Officer Robert Reffner and General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer Ebony Yeboah-Amankwah, who assumed their legal and compliance roles in May, separated from the Akron, Ohio-based utility Nov. 8, according to a FirstEnergy securities filing. The departures of Reffner and Yeboah-Amankwah follow the recent firing of CEO Charles Jones and two other senior executives at FirstEnergy.

FirstEnergy didn’t disclose a reason for the exit of both lawyers a little more than five months after they had been promoted to their now former positions. A FirstEnergy spokeswoman declined to discuss the personnel changes but said that “future changes to leadership within our legal department will be announced in due course.”

Reffner has worked at FirstEnergy since 2007 and was named general counsel in 2018. He received nearly $2.5 million in total compensation from the utility in 2019, according to a proxy statement filed by FirstEnergy for that fiscal year. Yeboah-Amankwah, who joined FirstEnergy in 2005, was promoted this year to general counsel after Reffner moved into the company’s top legal position.

FirstEnergy tapped Reffner to replace chief legal officer and executive vice president for corporate strategy and regulatory affairs Leila Vespoli, who retired April 1, 2019, and received a pay package valued at over $7 million from the utility last year. Gary Benz, a former associate general counsel at FirstEnergy who has spent nearly 32 years at the utility, has spent almost six years as its senior vice president of strategy.

In recent months, FirstEnergy has been grappling with a federal investigation that has involved leading figures in Ohio politics, including former state House Speaker Larry Householder, who was indicted in July by a grand jury for his alleged part in a $60 million racketeering scheme.

FirstEnergy has tried to distance itself from Householder as it faces litigation from ratepayers accusing the utility and its former nuclear subsidiary, Energy Harbor Corp., of a shadow lobbying campaign designed to pass and preserve state legislation subsidizing nuclear power.

Energy Harbor was formed earlier this year after FirstEnergy’s former nuclear subsidiary emerged from bankruptcy and was spun-off into an independent entity. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sued both companies in September as part of an effort to block them from receiving public funds to bolster financially struggling nuclear power facilities.

FirstEnergy isn’t the only power producer to recently shake up its in-house legal leadership amid ongoing legal issues.

Exelon Corp., a Chicago-based energy giant, last month unveiled plans to usher in a new general counsel come Jan. 1 after its utility unit was caught up in an Illinois bribery probe related to nuclear power plants.

(Updates story throughout with more information on Reffner and Yeboah-Amankwah and litigation involving FirstEnergy and Energy Harbor.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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