CINCINNATI — Ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder testified Wednesday that he didn’t attend a trio of high-dollar dinners in Washington, D.C. with FirstEnergy executives in January 2017, contradicting the testimony of a former top political aide and disputing other versions of the story prosecutors have presented to jurors during his corruption trial.
Householder said instead that he spent the week of ex-President Donald Trump’s inauguration largely with his family, attending concerts, political banquets and private dinners. He said he only ran into Chuck Jones, the then-CEO of FirstEnergy, a couple of times in passing, including at the home of Rex Elsass, a top GOP political strategist, and then again in the lobby of his hotel.
The testimony is flatly at odds with what Jeff Longsteth told jurors last week. Longstreth, who has cut a plea deal as part of the case, told jurors last week that he and Householder discussed what eventually became a deal to pass priority legislation for FirstEnergy in exchange for tens of millions of dollars in political contributions.
Prosecutors have used the exchange and the imagery it conveys — a politician flying on a corporate jet to Washington, D.C., to hatch a corrupt bribery scheme over steaks — as a key part of their narrative of the complex case. They’ve previously introduced evidence of the dinners, in the form of corporate expense reports and receipts from FirstEnergy that list Householder and Jones as among the attendees.
Householder said Wednesday he hadn’t seen the receipts until the trial, and reaffirmed he wasn’t there.
“No,” he said several times.
Prosecutors said that FirstEnergy, while seeking a bailout for two Ohio nuclear plants owned by former subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions , paid $60 million in bribes to Generation Now, a nonprofit Householder secretly controlled in exchange for his help passing the bill.
But on Wednesday, Householder said he didn’t direct the spending, vendors, or contributions of Generation Now. He said that power belonged to Longstreth, the signatory on the account.
The money helped Householder defeat a rival Republican candidate, then-House Speaker Ryan Smith, who didn’t support the bailout. Householder then pushed for the law’s passage in 2019 and with help of his co-defendant, Matt Borges, and others, defended it against a repeal attempt. The nonprofit covered the costs. Prosecutors say its operators used its funds to pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars as well.
Householder’s lawyers called two witnesses on Wednesday. In the morning, Bob Klaffky, a prominent Columbus lobbyist, disputed testimony from Juan Cespedes, another lobbyist who’s pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Cespedes has told jurors that Klaffky had given a $400,000 check to Householder during an October 2018 meeting in which FirstEnergy Solutions’ representatives emphasized their need for a bailout. Klaffky testified that an FES executive, David Griffing, actually gave Householder the check, although he said he generally didn’t remember the meeting well.
But the most notable witness testimony from Wednesday came from Householder, who let loose a full press of folksy appeal and self-assuredness from the witness stand. He struggled, perhaps in jest, to recall how many years he has been married to his “pizza addict” wife, Taundra, who sat in the courtroom watching. He cackled loudly when asked about a claim from another alleged conspirator, the late lobbyist Neil Clark, who unwittingly told undercover FBI agents he served as Householder’s “proxy” with Generation Now. He showed jurorsa picture of his son near the stage at a Trace Adkins concert in Washington D.C. that he said he took.
He spent time trying to get jurors to disbelieve Longstreth, who in his testimony had portrayed Householder as an exacting, all-knowledgeable and hands-on boss.
In 2018, Longstreth had helped orchestrate Householder’s campaign for speaker, which involved recruiting friendly candidates and helping them defeat Smith’s allies in that year’s Republican primary election.
But on Wednesday, Householder described delegating a lot of the responsibility for his campaign to Longstreth and Megan Fitzmartin, who worked for Longstreth and who also previously testified in the case.
He also contradicted testimony offered by Rep. Dave Greenspan, a Westlake Republican who in 2019 voted against House Bill 6, the bailout legislation. Greenspan claimed Clark threatened him on Householder’s behalf regarding his no-vote on HB6; that Householder nixed other legislation Greenspan was working on at the time; and that Householder’s lieutenant, Longstreth, dispatched an intermediary asking Greenspan to delete his texts with Householder regarding HB6.
Householder denied any inolvement on each of those three points.
“I absolutely did not threaten him,” Householder said.
Another anecdote helps illustrate the difference between Longstreth and Householder’s respective testimonies. Longstreth described to jurors a phrase — “casket carriers” — that Longstreth said meant to convey the significance Householder placed on loyalty.
“I understood it to mean a loyal team around him that would be with him until his death and to lower the casket in the ground,” Longstreth said.
But Householder said he had a different interpretation of the term, saying it reflected his desire to not make any more enemies than he already had throughout his lengthy political career.
“When you get to be the age that I am, you’re not looking for any more enemies. And if you’re in politics, there’s probably going to be enough people throwing mud at you when your casket goes by,” he said. “In other words, I don’t want enemies, I want friends. I didn’t come back [re-enter politics] to make more enemies.”
And rather than what Longstreth said, that Householder prized loyalty above all when looking for legislative candidates, Householder said he looked for independent thinkers who pay attention.
“You get a much better debate,” Householder said.
Householder’s attorneys say they expect he will testify for about another hour on Thursday morning. From there, Householder faces his true crucible: answering questions from federal prosecutors who have now spent years trying to put him behind bars.
Borges will have the opportunity to question Householder as well.After that, Borges may testify in his own defense, his lawyers said. If he does not, they likely will rest their case.
On his way out out of the courtroom Wednesday, Borges said when asked whether he may testify despite any potential legal risks: “Whatever you see tomorrow, know that it was my choice.”
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