Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityNorfolk Southern plied Ohio politicians with campaign cash, extensive lobbying | WSYX
Close Alert

Norfolk Southern plied Ohio politicians with campaign cash, extensive lobbying

A black plume rises over East Palestine as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Feb. 6. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
A black plume rises over East Palestine as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Feb. 6. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Facebook Share IconTwitter Share IconEmail Share Icon

Almost exactly a month before a Norfolk Southern train derailed and spewed hazardous materials in eastern Ohio, the company gave the maximum $10,000 to help bankroll Gov. Mike DeWine’s inaugural festivities.

A 6 On Your Side examination of state records shows this contribution, which is part of $29,000 the Virginia-based corporation has contributed to DeWine’s political funds since he first ran for governor in 2018, is merely one piece of an extensive, ongoing effort to influence statewide officials and Ohio lawmakers.

In all, the railway company has contributed about $98,000 during the past six years to Ohio statewide and legislative candidates, according to data from the secretary of state. Virtually all went to Republicans, although Norfolk Southern hedged its support for DeWine in 2018 with a $3,000 check to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray.

In addition, the company filed more than 200 state-required quarterly reports disclosing lobbying of state officials or legislators in the same period.

A total of 39 of those public disclosures showed that DeWine or another statewide official was the lobbyists’ target, while another 167 were aimed at state lawmakers.

Most of the disclosed attempts to influence Ohio leaders came on generic rail or transportation issues. Some efforts, however, were devoted to defeating legislation that would have established tougher safety standards for rail yards and train operations.

Years of killing Ohio bills designed to make railroads safer

Getting special attention from Norfolk Southern was a bipartisan measure introduced in two consecutive legislation sessions which would have required a minimum of two-person crews on freight trains – pushed by advocates as a safety measure.

While the size of the crew has not publicly emerged as a factor in the East Palestine derailment, the ardent opposition of Norfolk Southern to that provision and other proposed rail safety measures underscores the company’s strong efforts to avoid additional regulation.

ALSO | Little-known political fund gives DeWine donors like AEP another shot at influence

In early 2021, lobbyists made their case to the office of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost against the two-person crew mandate. The bill would have required the attorney general, at the request of the Public Utilities Commission, to bring a civil action against railroads that violated the law.

The penalties would have ranged from a possible $1,000 for a first violation to as much as $10,000 for a third violation within three years of the first.

There was no indication Yost did anything, and he is now threatening to sue the railroad over the East Palestine derailment, per a letter obtained by 6 On Your Side.

In the end, however, the lobbying effort was a success. While neither measure passed, the later version got five hearings in 2021 in the House Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

Republican co-sponsor Brett Hillyer of Uhrichsville had said at the time that the bill contained “railroad safety measures that are long overdue and critical not only for industry safety, but for the communities impacted by the railroads.”

“Railroads are a very important part of commerce, but if you start thinking about what’s carried in a rail car, what kind of havoc that could wreak on your districts and your communities," Hillyer said, "I think it is a common-sense solution to require a two-man train crew.”

Democratic co-sponsor Michael Sheehy of suburban Toledo, who spent 40 years in the rail industry, said the proposal would provide needed rules to protect Ohioans and assure safety for both the public and railroad worker alike. He left office at the end of 2022.

But Randy Noe, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for Norfolk Southern, told the House committee that Federal Railroad Administration data “does not establish that one-person operations are less safe than multi-person train crews.”

Besides, he added, Ohio lawmakers have no right to take up safety issues pre-empted by federal law.

Both CSX and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce joined Norfolk Southern in opposing the minimum-crew mandate.

“Ohio’s business climate would be negatively impacted by legislation such as HB 186 because the added regulations would increase the cost of doing business in the Buckeye State and would interfere with the employment relationship between employers and their employees,” Kevin Shimp, the chamber’s director of labor and legal affairs said.

A spokesman for Gov. DeWine says campaign contributions have no effect on his decisions. The governor indicated last week the state likely would sue if Norfolk Southern does not uphold its commitment to pay for damages and the clean-up effort.

Norfolk Southern describes its criteria for campaign donations on its website, saying, "We make political contributions when we determine them to be in the best interests of the corporation. ... All political spending reflects (the railroad's) interests, and not those of individual officers or directors."

The company also disclosed on its website that it spent $4.36 million on lobbying nationwide in 2021.

Ohio, federal lawmakers demand answers from both the railroad and regulators

The railroad’s president and CEO, Alan Shaw visited East Palestine on Saturday. He pledged “we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

Lawmakers are now scrambling to make sure the railroad is held accountable. The House Homeland Security Committee is scheduled to hear “informal testimony” Wednesday from Karen Huey, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, and John Esterly, chairman of the Ohio State Legislative Board with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

MORE | FEMA and Norfolk Southern CEO visit East Palestine; Donald Trump expected Wednesday

In Washington, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Maria Cantwell is seeking detailed information about Norfolk Southern. Over the past five years, the Democrat from the state of Washington noted that large railroads “have cut their workforce by nearly one third, shuttered railyards where railcars are traditionally inspected, and are running longer and heavier trains. Thousands of trains carrying hazardous materials, like the one that derailed in Ohio, travel through communities throughout the nation each day.”

Railroad safety was the centerpiece of a letter Thursday from U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D Vance of Ohio, plus both of Pennsylvania’s senators, to Jennifer L. Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The bipartisan quartet wanted to know how to reclassify trains “that are clearly dangerous, like those which derailed in East Palestine,” into a higher federal category so that notice goes to states through which they travel.

The senators also wondered:

“Are U.S. railroads and shippers investing sufficiently in maintaining the railcars and tracks used by trains that transport hazardous material? It has been reported that the seven Class I (biggest) railroads in the U.S. spent more than $114 billion on stock buybacks and cash distributions and paid more than $77 billion in dividends between 2010 and 2021, amounts that significantly exceed the $138 billion spent on their infrastructure during that period.”

Corporate campaign contributions pay off, critics say

Union members, who vocally supported past legislative attempts to increase rail safety, are especially outspoken after the derailment.

“Even as the trains have gotten longer, the workforce supporting them has gotten smaller. All of this is done by rail corporations in pursuit of lower operating costs, higher profits, and a better return for shareholders,” said Jeremy Ferguson, transportation division president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union, based near Cleveland.

The bottom line of such deference to operating ratios over safety conditions “has led us to the point where fewer railroaders with less training are taking longer trains made up of more hazardous materials down tracks with more wear and tear. As the heartbreaking images from East Palestine show, this is a recipe for more catastrophic consequences.”

The liberal nonprofit ProgressOhio, pointing to Norfolk Southern’s extensive record of trying to influence state decision-makers, drew a parallel between those completely legal efforts and the illegal activities testified about in an ongoing federal corruption case:

“As the trial of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and FirstEnergy has shown us," the organization said in a statement, "corporate giving to campaigns occasionally comes with a clear expectation of favorable policy outcomes. And in Ohio, Norfolk Southern got what it wanted.”

Loading ...