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Payday lending bill comes to life as House speaker faces probe

Sources say FBI looking into trip Rep. Cliff Rosenberger took to London along with representatives of payday lending industry.

After sitting dormant for more than a year, action is expected on legislation that aims to crack down on payday lending practices — just as Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger confirmed he hired a criminal defense attorney because the Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking questions about his activities.

House Bill 123, sponsored by state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, is expected to be approved by the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee on Wednesday and get a full floor vote sometime after that.

Sources familiar with the FBI investigation say the bureau is looking into a four-day trip the Clarksville Republican took to London in August. Also on the trip were representatives from the payday lending industry, which has been working to stall or water down Koehler’s bill.

Rosenberger’s official calendar — released through a public records request — omits mention of the London trip, except for driving directions for a tour of Longcross Film Studios in Surrey scheduled for Aug. 30.

The four-day trip was sponsored by GOPAC, an organization based in Virginia that works to elect Republicans in higher office. Jessica Curtis, the executive director of GOPAC, confirmed the group’s Institute for Leadership Development sponsored the trip in late August.

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It was held, she said in an email, “to educate participants on U.S./U.K. trade opportunities, foster the exchange of ideas with Members of Parliament and facilitate the study of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”

RELATED: Ohio House Speaker hires defense attorney over FBI questions

Ohio lobbyist Stephen D. Dimon, Jr., who works for several clients including payday lender Select Management Resources, confirmed Monday that he went on the London trip. He declined further comment.

Dimon’s business partner, Leslie R. Gaines, is a registered lobbyist for Select Management Resources in South Carolina. Posted on her Facebook page from August 2017 are photos of Gaines, Dimon and Rosenberger in England.

It’s not clear what prompted the FBI’s interest in the trip, and Rosenberger did not respond to messages seeking comment. But on Friday, he told the Dayton Daily News that he hired a criminal defense attorney because he heard that the FBI is asking questions about him.

RELATED: Lawmakers pitch payday lending reform bill

“As a precautionary measure, I went ahead and hired David Axelrod because I had been made aware and understand that the bureau is asking questions about things I may have been involved in. But that is only from a precautionary standpoint. I’m not going to answer any more questions than that,” Rosenberger said.

FBI spokesman Todd Lindgren has said “As a matter of policy we cannot confirm or deny the existence of a potential investigation.”

An FBI inquiry doesn’t mean any criminal charges will be filed.

Axelrod has had other high-profile clients, including former Ohio State University band director Jon Waters, who the school fired because it said he allowed a “culture of harassment and alcohol abuse.” After he saw the Daily News story, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said he called Rosenberger and told him he should resign if he’s done anything wrong.

“He told me that he did not think that he had done anything wrong,” DeWine said. “I’m a person who operates on facts. I’m a former prosecutor. The facts will ultimately determine what should be done in this matter.”

Rosenberger has endorsed DeWine, a fellow Republican, in his race for governor.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he hasn’t spoken with Rosenberger about the FBI inquiry. “Cliff is a friend of mine. In fact, yesterday as I was spending a little bit of time saying some prayers for people, I said one for him. I don’t really know all that is involved in this. But I am really really hopeful that by the time everything is done — if in fact, I don’t even know what the details are — he’ll emerge as somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong. That’s what I hope, so we’ll see where it ends up.”

State Rep. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, also went on the trip to London, according to GOPAC’s Curtis, who said Manning was a guest of Rosenberger. Representatives from five other states were also on the trip, she said.

Manning did not return messages left with his office but on Monday he filed his 2017 Financial Disclosure Statement and reported that GOPAC gave him a gift and paid $958 for his travel and meals. He also listed GOPAC as a creditor for 2017.

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Rosenberger travels extensively in Ohio, across the nation and around the world. His calendar documents trips to Paris, Normandy, Florence and Israel last fall, as well as treks to Gettysburg, Boston, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico earlier in 2017.

He is term-limited and will leave office in December, which has set up a heated race for speaker between Rep. Ryan Smith and former speaker Rep. Larry Householder.

Although Republicans control the legislature, an FBI investigation of an Ohio Republican leader could help Democrats at election time, according Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia Center for Politics analyst.

“One of the things I have felt about 2018 in Ohio is that whatever national problems the Republicans might have, one of the things they have going is there wasn’t a big state government scandal going on,” said Kondik, who worked for Democrat and governor candidate Rich Cordray when Cordray was attorney general.

“State government scandal has sometimes been a theme in big Democratic years,” Kondik said. “It leaves open the possibility it could become a problem for Republicans, but it’s too early to tell.”

Staff Writer Will Garbe contributed to this report.

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