Editor’s note: This article originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.
CINCINNATI — Former state Rep. Nino Vitale on Tuesday testified that he didn’t have much of a memory for — nor was he much interested in — raising money or campaigning for office. At several points, the Republican from Urbana even said he didn’t remember what year he was first elected to the legislature (it was 2014.)
But on cross examination, federal prosecutors showed him records and written communications indicating that Vitale was regarded as an enthusiastic member of “Team Householder” who, as part of the team, received thousands in campaign funds and other assistance that originated with Akron-based FirstEnergy.
As former Speaker Larry Householder’s appointee to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Vitale in 2019 helped to pass a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily benefited FirstEnergy. When they announced arrests in the summer of 2020, federal prosecutors said the bailout was at the center of what was likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scandal in Ohio history.
Vitale was called by Householder’s lawyers in the trial, which started on Jan. 23. Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are charged with racketeering in an alleged scheme to use $61 million in utility money to elect friendly lawmakers who would make Householder speaker and then bail out FirstEnergy’s failing nuclear and coal plants.
Vitale has long been known for controversial political gestures — including refusing to wear a mask at the height of the coronavirus pandemic because human faces are “the likeness of God.”
But on Tuesday, Vitale portrayed himself as a reluctant politician. In a possible nod to how uncompetitive his district was, the former lawmaker said he didn’t have to do much to get reelected.
“The whole marketing side of things wasn’t big on my radar because my district elected me overwhelmingly and frequently,” Vitale said.
Householder’s attorneys seemed to call Vitale and other Householder supporters in the House to testify so they could say they believed the bailout law was good public policy. But U.S. District Judge Timothy Black limited such testimony, saying the proceeding wasn’t a referendum on the merits of House Bill 6.
Vitale also said he never felt pressured to support Householder for speaker or to support the bailout.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter then posed a series of questions that seemed to be intended to show that Householder made Vitale chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee not because Vitale had any particular qualifications, but because he was an enthusiastic member of Team Householder who would do the speaker’s bidding.
Vitale tried to refute that characterization.
When Painter tried to get him to agree that he had little in his background to school him in large-scale electricity generation or the management of the state’s natural resources, Vitale wouldn’t.
“I know quite a lot about those topics, actually,” he testified.
Vitale said he works for his wife’s family’s company, which makes parts for truck brakes. It has an electricity substation and it sits on 30 acres, and those factors gave him expertise on the power grid and the environment, Vitale said.
When Painter proposed that Vitale had no academic credentials that would make him expert in those areas, Vitale disagreed again, saying his business degree provided him with such knowledge.
“In a business degree, part of what you study is energy inputs to a business,” Vitale said.
The former lawmaker also claimed that he wasn’t very familiar with FirstEnergy and had to be convinced to support the bailout bill. Then Painter displayed a text message from FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling to CEO Chuck Jones on Feb. 17, 2019 — before the bill was introduced. Earlier testimony showed that the executives believed the bailout was critical to their company, and Jones had asked Dowling who was going to chair the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“Nino Vitale from Springfield will chair,” Dowling responded. “Good friend and bigtime (Householder) supporter.”
Confronted with the message, Vitale said he’d only met Dowling a few times.
Vitale also disputed that it was Householder who first broached the idea of Vitale being chairman.
“I asked him,” Vitale said.
Then Painter played a voicemail message that Vitale left for Householder in January 2019, just after Householder had been made speaker. In it, Vitale said he had talked the matter over with his family.
“I’m in if that’s what you want me to do,” Vitale said.
As Painter tried to move on to another question, Vitale insisted that chairing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was originally his idea.
And to refute Vitale’s claims that he was half-hearted about fundraising and political marketing, Painter displayed an October 4, 2017 text message Vitale sent to Jeffrey Longstreth, Householder’s right-hand man in making him speaker and then passing the bailout. It certainly seemed to link FirstEnergy’s policy agenda to Vitale’s desire for corporate contributions.
FirstEnergy lobbyist “Ty Pine wants to meet with me on a legislative matter and I want to meet with him on a contribution matter,” Vitale said in his message.
After more than a month, testimony in the trial is entering the homestretch. Householder’s final witnesses — including Householder himself — are expected to testify Wednesday and Thursday. Then it will be Borges’ turn to call any witnesses he may have.
After that, the prosecution and the defense teams will make closing statements, Judge Black will instruct the jury and then it will deliberate.
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