Two Ohio House speakers under federal investigation: What’s going on?

FILE - In this Tuesday, July 21, 2020, file photo, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder leaves the federal courthouse after an initial hearing following charges against him and four others alleging a $60 million bribery scheme, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, July 21, 2020, file photo, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder leaves the federal courthouse after an initial hearing following charges against him and four others alleging a $60 million bribery scheme, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

Credit: Jay LaPrete

Credit: Jay LaPrete

In a little more than two years, two Ohio House speakers have come under investigation by the FBI Public Corruption Task Force — a team based in Columbus less than a mile from the Ohio Statehouse.

The task force also has revealed corruption investigations in local governments in Dayton, Cincinnati and Toledo.

And this isn’t the first time Perry County Republican Larry Householder has been on the feds’ radar. When he left the Ohio House in 2004 due to term limits, federal investigators were digging into allegations of public corruption.

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The case closed without charges in 2006 and a decade later, Householder made an epic political comeback.

He won election to the Ohio House, set his sights on speaker, raised money, built his power base, sidelined his rivals and cut deals. In January 2019 he became the first Ohioan in nearly six decades to hold the speaker’s gavel for a second time.

But a bombshell case filed this week in U.S. District Court alleges that Householder’s comeback road was paved by $60 million in dark money from an Akron-based utility desperate for a financial bailout.

Householder used the cash to elect allies to legislative seats in 2018, win the speaker post, pass House Bill 6 and kill an effort to put the new law up for a referendum, an 82-page criminal complaint alleges.

Mike Curtin, former publisher of the Columbus Dispatch and a two-term Democrat in the Ohio House, read the criminal complaint.

“What astonishes a lot of us is that Speaker Householder, having tip-toed past the graveyard once —widely reported, widely acknowledged that the feds were investigating him during his first tenure as speaker — wouldn’t have doubled down on being careful,” said Curtin, who is also author of the Ohio Political Almanac. “He was already targeted once. He knew he was targeted. It’s not like the feds have amnesia.”

Householder returned to power at the same time that one of his predecessors — Clarksville Republican Cliff Rosenberger — also was under federal investigation.

Rosenberger resigned in April 2018 after disclosing to the Dayton Daily News that he had hired a criminal defense attorney to handle an FBI probe. That investigation is still ongoing, FBI spokesman Todd Lindgren said this week. Rosenberger has denied any wrongdoing and he has not been charged.

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At the local level, the FBI has revealed ongoing investigations in Toledo, Cincinnati and Dayton.

Last year federal authorities indicted seven people — three of whom have been convicted — in an investigation of public corruption in the Dayton region. All but one of the Dayton cases involved city of Dayton contracts.

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Except for the Toledo case, which occurred in the northern district of Ohio, the FBI Public Corruption Task Force has been the investigatory muscle behind the cases. The task force also was instrumental in the convictions of Democratic lawmakers Carlton Weddington and Clayton Luckie and former deputy state treasurer Amer Ahmad.

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“Our No. 1 priority in the FBI is public corruption. That’s because public corruption erodes public confidence and the strength of our great democracy,” said Chris Hoffman, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Cincinnati field office, which oversees the task force. “Rooting out public corruption is extremely difficult but is a mission for which the FBI is uniquely suited and postured, trained and equipped.”

Public corruption cases are among the most labor-intensive, difficult investigations to conduct, said Ben Glassman, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. The targets often go to great lengths to hide the corrupt activity and they’re among the most plugged in people, Glassman said.

When a public corruption case results in charges, people often say it’s a sad day for Ohio. Not Glassman.

Glassman, who was speaking in general and not about a specific case, said: “The corruptions might be sad. The fact that it’s being exposed and the fact that people are held accountable is good. It shows the system is working. It sends a deterrent message and it should give the public confidence that law enforcement is on their side.”

Ohio Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said he doesn’t believe Ohio has a bigger corruption problem than any other state. The high profile cases coming to light are the result of federal resources being dedicated to rooting out public corruption, he said.

Bledsoe said making sure people know there is a robust law enforcement team in place and hard consequences for violations helps deter public corruption.

Federal agents work in shadows for months or years on these complex cases. But when it goes public, prosecutors and investigators often hold splashy press conferences and ring out a warning.

“Today’s announcement comes with a warning: From city councils to the statehouse, all forms of public corruption are unacceptable,” said Hoffman, the leader of the FBI Cincinnati Field office, this week when announcing the case against Householder and four others.

Curtin, who began his journalism career as a legislative reporter, said a number of factors contribute to public corruption, including one-party rule and players willing to participate in illegal schemes. Additionally, citizens are less engaged.

“A lot of smart people, highly intelligent people, pay little to no attention to public affairs. And there is a price to be paid for that,” he said. “You go back to the founders, especially Ben Franklin, and what they said about what it will require to maintain this incredible experiment in democratic republicanism. First and foremost, it takes an involved public who cares about civic affairs and takes part.”