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FirstEnergy Names New Chief Legal Officer, Elevates Two More (1)

May 20, 2020, 2:26 PMUpdated: May 21, 2020, 3:23 PM

FirstEnergy Corp., one of the largest U.S. electric utilities, has announced a new legal chief and roles for two other top in-house lawyers.

Robert Reffner, who has worked at FirstEnergy since 2007 and became senior vice president and general counsel in 2018, was appointed chief legal officer. He will report to FirstEnergy president and CEO Charles Jones, the company said Tuesday.

FirstEnergy said in a statement that Reffner will also oversee efforts to develop an in-house innovation center, a “new venture that will apply data analytics, technologies, and creative problem-solving to accelerate innovation” within the Akron, Ohio-based utility.

The innovation center, slated for completion this fall, is not a legal function, FirstEnergy spokeswoman Tricia Ingraham told Bloomberg Law in an email. Instead it’s part of a broader company-wide project to drive digital and process automation innovation, which FirstEnergy hopes will “help provide new solutions for problem solving and decision making,” Ingraham said.

In-House Shuffle

Reffner’s move fills a vacancy left by the retirement last year of Leila Vespoli, the company’s former chief legal officer and an executive vice president for corporate strategy and regulatory affairs.

A 2019 proxy statement filed by FirstEnergy shows that it paid nearly $2.47 million in total compensation last year to Reffner, including over $1 million in cash. Bloomberg data shows that Reffner currently owns $3.36 million in FirstEnergy stock.

His pay package last year was almost a third of Vespoli’s, his predecessor as chief legal officer, who received more than $7.02 million in total compensation—including $377,366 in cash and a nearly $1.52 million severance and deferred compensation payment—from the company, per its 2019 proxy. Securities filings show that Vespoli sold off about $1 million in FirstEnergy stock last year.

FirstEnergy announced in mid-2018 that Vespoli would retire April 1, 2019. She still owns $7.74 million in FirstEnergy stock, according to Bloomberg data, as well as roughly $152,000 in stock for TimkenSteel Corp., where Vespoli became a member of that company’s board of directors in November 2019.

In addition to Reffner’s new role, First Energy said this week that vice president, deputy general counsel, corporate secretary, and chief ethics officer Ebony Yeboah-Amankwah had been promoted to general counsel.

Yeboah-Amankwah will continue to serve as FirstEnergy’s ethics chief but will cede the corporate secretary role to senior corporate counsel Mary Swann, the utility said. Swann was hired by FirstEnergy in 2018, while Yeboah-Amankwah joined the company in 2005.

Big Legal Bills

Reffner, Yeboah-Amankwah, and Swann oversee an in-house legal group that employs a robust roster of outside counsel.

In recent years, FirstEnergy has incurred large legal bills stemming from its former nuclear and coal generation subsidiary, which earlier this year emerged from bankruptcy proceedings as an independent entity under the name Energy Harbor Corp. At least a half-dozen law firms had advisory roles for Energy Harbor in its Chapter 11 case.

Roseland, N.J.-based Connell Foley has handled roughly 37% of FirstEnergy’s U.S. litigation caseload since 2007, according to Bloomberg Law data. Other leading law firms for litigation work during that time include Jackson Kelly; Roetzel & Andress; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the latter of which had a lead restructuring role advising Energy Harbor.

A final fee application submitted in February by Akin Gump in Energy Harbor’s bankruptcy case shows that the firm billed the debtor for nearly $68 million in legal fees and expenses since the company began Chapter 11 proceedings on March 31, 2018. Rick Giannantonio has been general counsel for Energy Harbor since 2017, when the company was known as FirstEnergy Solutions Corp.

Akin Gump is also among a stable of high-powered federal lobbyists employed by Energy Harbor, having received $250,000 from the company Harbor since January 2019 to advise on “issues pertaining to client bankruptcy proceedings,” according to congressional filings.

Energy Harbor’s former parent FirstEnergy has paid $150,000 to Holland & Knight since early 2019 for the firm to lobby on climate change and the Clean Air Act. Hunton Andrews Kurth has received $250,000 from FirstEnergy during that same period to advocate on energy and environmental legislation, according to public filings.

(Updates story originally published May 20 to clarify Energy Harbor's status as an independent company in 12th paragraph.)

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com

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