Ohio’s largest-ever corruption case is a political black eye for the state. Some local lawmakers say it will take a long time to reverse the harm caused and that meaningful reforms are needed to combat potential future corruption.
Former House Speaker Larry Householder was found guilty earlier this month in a $60 million-plus bribery scheme he coordinated that was funded by FirstEnergy Corp. The deal provided a $1 billion bailout for a pair of nuclear power plants and aided Householder’s ascension to the speakership for a second time.
Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London, said Householder “was always pay to play,” and the verdict shows no one is above the law.
“He felt he could do anything,” said Hackett, who represents the state’s 10th Senate District, which includes Springfield and Beavercreek. “He told a lot of the new people not even to raise money, that he could go out and raise unlimited money for them. He wanted to get them indebted to him. That’s how he worked. But he didn’t work under the confines of the law.”
For this story, this news outlet reached out to Ohio lawmakers representing southwest Ohio and asked what they gleaned from the Householder trial and what, if anything, they think should be done in its wake.
Freshman Ohio Rep. Willis Blackshear Jr., D-Dayton, said the House Bill 6 scandal “is a prime example of politicians working for corporations and not people.”
“This is one of the reasons why the public has a disdain for politicians because of cases like this,” he said. “It’s time for us to move forward and it’s time for us to correct the wrongs that have taken place.”
Blackshear is pushing for a total repeal and replacement of House Bill 6 — the energy bill at the center of the case — along with passing anticorruption legislation “that would prevent situations like this from happening in the future.” He also said people need to hold elected leaders accountable.
“Public servants should never participate in a pay-to-play scheme to subvert the people’s will or undermine our democratic process,” he said.
Some area lawmakers chose not to participate in this story.
Greene County Republican Reps. Bill Dean and Brian Lampton both declined to comment. Reps. Bernie Willis, R-Springfield, and Scott Lipps, R-Lebanon, did not return messages seeking comment. Lipps, who supported House Bill 6, was subpoenaed to testify in the Householder trial. Willis was first elected in November.
Federal prosecutors lauded the March 9 verdict where Householder, as well as former Ohio GOP chairman and lobbyist Matt Borges, were found guilty of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Kenneth Parker said in a statement that “Householder sold the Statehouse,” as he betrayed the public’s trust. He also called Borges “a willing co-conspirator.”
“Through its verdict (on March 9), the jury reaffirmed that the illegal acts committed by both men will not be tolerated and that they should be held accountable,” Parker said.
The bribery scheme came to light in July 2020 when Householder and Borges were arrested along with Householder advisor Jeffery Longstreth, former statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark, and consultant Juan Cespedes.
Longstreth, who was called Householder’s “political guy” in the 80-page complaint, and Cespedes, who authorities said was “a key middleman,” pleaded guilty and testified in the nearly two-month trial. Clark pleaded not guilty before he died by suicide in March 2021.
House Bill 6
The indictment against Householder and others also stated that Generation Now, a dark money group, orchestrated the scheme. Generation Now, which Longstreth represented, also pleaded guilty.
The groundwork behind the scandal started before April 12, 2019, which was when Householder unveiled HB 6. It was designed to provide subsidies for nuclear power plants and overhaul the state’s energy policy. In the weeks that followed, FirstEnergy sent more than $9 million to Generation Now to pass the bill.
The bailout bill passed the Ohio House six weeks after its introduction, and it took seven weeks to get through the Ohio Senate and onto Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk, which he signed into law on July 23, 2019.
But, in the three months from when DeWine signed the bill, and it became effective on Oct. 22, 2019, a referendum was filed and approved, and the FBI’s investigation into Householder began.
Then, on July 21, 2020, nine months after the bill became law, Householder, Borges, and others were arrested related to racketeering charges. More than a week later, on the same day as Householder was removed as speaker, federal indictments were handed down.
Credit: Joshua A. Bickel
Credit: Joshua A. Bickel
Former Householder ally
State Sen. Niraj Antani, a Republican from Miamisburg, was an Ohio representative in 2019 and backed HB 6 and Householder. Shortly after Householder was indicted, the Dayton Daily News revealed that Antani received a $5,000 donation from Friends of Larry Householder that he failed to report on his campaign finance forms until after the newspaper’s report.
Prior to that donation, though, Antani led the charge for Householder to be removed as speaker. Antani, who was elected as an Ohio Senator in 2020, also led the team that elected then-Rep. Robert Cupp as Householder’s successor, which was also before the donation.
The lesson in all of this for current and future politicians is one they should already know, Antani said.
“Bribery is wrong. You are not supposed to use your office to trade favors for personal or, in this case, campaign benefit,” said Antani. “We have a judicial process. They were found guilty, and I’m happy that this is resolved. I’m hoping that we can put this obviously sad chapter in Ohio government behind us.”
Other local HB 6 backers
Lawmakers in 2021 repealed parts of HB 6, though Democrats called for a total repeal. The parts of the bill tied to the corruption were repealed with House Bill 128 in 2021, including the nuclear bailout.
FirstEnergy, the beneficiary of the 2019 bailout bill, said it would repay $26 million it received as a result of House Bill 6, according to the Associated Press.
“House Bill 6 will always be tainted,” said Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., “but there were some good things in the bill.”
“I was a no on House Bill 6 until they pulled all those green energy mandates out and we replaced them for the nuclear energy mandates, which had a sunset. So, it immediately lowered the consumer’s bill.”
Rep. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, who backed House Bill 6 and Householder, said those who got the money should also be held accountable, but she’s always believed the bill, for the most part, “was good legislation.” She said no one on Team Householder made any promises or pushed her to back the energy bill.
Hackett said he backed HB 6 because he was worried about an energy shortage.
“All I wanted was to buy some time until we got those natural gas plants in existence because if we ran into an energy shortage in the Midwest, it really could hurt Ohio,” he said.
State Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., said he supported it “because we need a diverse portfolio regarding energy.”
“We need to look back and see if there’s anything else we need to change,” he said of the bill now.
‘Glad justice was served’
Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, said even before the conviction, he felt Householder was guilty of corruption.
“I’m glad justice was served, and if there is anything that we can do in the legislature to keep that from ever happening again, I’ll be in full support of it,” he said.
Creech won the GOP primary in 2020 after Householder-backed J. Todd Smith withdrew from seeking re-election. Smith was first elected in 2018 after Householder’s team dropped $500,000 backing his campaign against Democrat and former Montgomery County commissioner Dan Foley, according to the federal complaint against Householder.
Federal prosecutors say this was among $1.3 million spent in the 10 days before the November 2018 election and was the “clearest example” of how Householder’s enterprise used dark money groups to propel Householder allies to election victories so Householder could win the speaker’s gavel.
A federal affidavit says Foley had a 10-point lead before a Householder-backed group released the misleading 11th-hour ad showing Foley taking a field sobriety test. Smith won the election by 137 votes. Smith says he had no involvement in the ad.
Foley declined to comment.
State Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City, noted that the 501(c)4 groups Householder used to funnel what many call “dark money” are protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
“There are a lot of organizations in the state of Ohio that use that in the proper way,” he said of 501(c)4 groups.
Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering, said state lawmakers need to work with their federal counterparts to come up with meaningful reforms that work within the confines created by U.S. Supreme Court.
“Certainly taking a look at what we can do to open up the doors of transparency needs to be a continuing goal,” she said. “We need to restore trust in all levels of society right now.”
Rep. Tom Young, R-Washington Twp. called an ethics reform bill put forward by Republican Rep. Derek Merrin of Monclova Twp. a “good first step.”
That bill would create more oversight for lobbying groups and create a money trail to share with the governor’s office and the public.
“I think more eyes are on this issue than ever before,” Young said.
Plummer also noted the Merrin bill and said lawmakers need to “make some changes on processes with lobbyists and shine the light on who receives what from lobbyists.”
Young and Plummer noted that federal prosecutors left the door open for further people to be charged, meaning there may be more to come.
“Anyone involved in criminal activity needs to be held accountable,” said Plummer. “And if there’s more people involved, I hope they are held accountable also.”
Further HB 6 fallout
Though the Householder trial has concluded, and an appeal of the guilty verdict is expected, the government’s investigation will continue. While no one else has been charged at this point, former PUCO Executive Director Sam Randazzo resigned the day after the FBI searched his home. The former state utility regulator, who had ties to FirstEnergy, has denied wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged.
Former FirstEnergy executives Chuck Jones and Michael Dowling, who were fired after Householder’s arrest, have also not been charged, but documents from both were key pieces of evidence against Householder.
House Floor Leader Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, didn’t offer any reaction to the verdict, but offered a letter penned to the editorial boards of various Ohio news agencies.
“Nothing else remains of HB 6 except the elimination of the previous energy efficiency mandates and the scaling back of the renewable energy mandates,” he wrote, adding that the Legislative Service Commission determined in June 2019 the HB 6 would save ratepayers $2.3 billion over its life. He also said the LSC increased that total savings to $3.4 billion after the partial repeal of HB 6, taking out the nuclear subsidies and decoupling language.
Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Credit: Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Blackshear said House Bill 6, as it stands now, is costing taxpayers $287,000 a day for subsidies to a pair of coal plants operated by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation, and that will total roughly $1 billion by 2030.
“I feel like we need to repeal it, and then, for those key pieces that are beneficial, going back to the drawing board,” he said. “House Bill 6 in its current version is costing taxpayers dollars, which could be used for a number of different programs and a number of different issues in our state.”
Huffman voted against HB6 and said lawmakers should continue to “dissect which parts were good for Ohio and which are not.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.