Ohio House committee passes bill to block social media from 'censoring' users

An Ohio House committee passed legislation Tuesday prohibiting social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from “censoring” their users.

The legislation would block the companies from removing posts or expelling people from their platforms based on the “viewpoint” of users or ideas expressed in their posts. It wouldn’t apply to speech already illegal under federal law like harassment or inciting violence.

Passage comes as some of the large social media networks grapple with trends like widespread undermining among Republicans of the 2020 U.S. presidential election results, the proliferation of bunk health advice around the COVID-19 pandemic, and wholesale denial of the Holocaust.

Lawmakers in 16 other Republican states have introduced similar legislation, stemming from conservatives’ perception that social media companies disproportionately censor their views. In the last six months, federal judges in Florida and Texas have temporarily halted the only two such laws enacted thus far, ruling that they violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Ohio legislation, House Bill 441, would allow private citizens to sue social media companies and win judgements if their views are “censored.” This includes blocking, banning, demonetizing, deplatforming, removing, denying “equal access or visibility to,” or otherwise “discriminating” against the user based on what they post. The bill prohibits the companies from creating any kind of waiver for users to sign to circumvent the censorship law. It only applies to companies with at least 50 million users.

Social media companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU, and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity opposed the proposal. Conservative think-tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation testified in support.

Supporters of the legislation alleged that “big tech” companies are threatening the free exchange of ideas by squelching their users’ content.

Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, noted in a session last month that YouTube has previously removed footage of an Ohio lawyer named Tom Renz — who has baselessly accused the president’s son Hunter Biden of playing a role in creating the coronavirus pandemic — testifying during an Ohio legislative committee hearing. A YouTube spokeswoman said at the time the company did so for Renz violating its COVID-19 misinformation policy by falsely claiming children cannot contract the disease.

While social media companies remove some content from conservatives, they have hardly silenced their voices, particularly on Facebook. Data from CrowdTangle — which measures engagement on social media including likes, comments, and others — regularly finds Republican pundits dominating Facebook. For instance, on May 4, the top-performing link posts on U.S. Facebook pages included conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro, evangelist preacher and conservative commentator Rev. Franklin Graham, Fox News Host Sean Hannity, and fellow Fox host Dan Bongino.

Nearly 3 in 4 Americans use at least one social media site, according to the Pew Research Center. Among adults, about 37% say its “very likely” and 36% say it’s “somewhat likely” that social media sites intentionally censor viewpoints they find objectionable. The same poll found 69% of Republicans believe the tech companies support the views of liberals over conservatives, compared with 25% of Democrats. Other Pew research has found Americans are generally mixed as to whether social media companies should use algorithms to find and remove false information from their platforms.

Lawsuits

At least two federal judges have blocked similar laws from taking place in other states, both deeming them violative of the First Amendment.

To pass a law abridging speech, a law must survive a high legal standard known as strict scrutiny. To do so, a state must convince the courts that the law achieves a compelling governmental interest, and that the law is narrowly tailored around that interest.

In Florida, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, found a similar law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis comes “nowhere close” to meeting the standard. The legislation was written, he said, to rein in social media providers deemed too large and too liberal. This isn’t the government’s business, he found.

“Balancing the exchange of ideas among private speakers is not a legitimate governmental interest,” he said, issuing a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the law from taking effect. That injunction is currently under appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.

In Texas, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, appointed by President Barack Obama, came to a similar conclusion. Forcing social media platforms to host content against their rules infringes on their free speech rights, he ruled. That ruling is also under appeal in the Fifth Circuit.

Analysts with the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan research arm of the legislature, said it’s “unclear” how the state law would interact with the federal Communications Decency Act. That federal law establishes an immunity from lawsuits regarding content on a platform that was posted by a third party.

The Ohio law would also expressly declare that social media companies are “common carriers” — which do not receive the same speech protections as publishers like newspapers do. The court rulings disputed this point. Pitman, in Texas, notes social media companies regularly screen, moderate, emphasize and curate content. That makes them a publisher, even if it’s an algorithm that does the sorting in lieu of a human editor.

“It is indeed new and exciting — or frightening, depending on who you ask — that algorithms do some of the work that a newspaper publisher previously did, but the core question is still whether a private company exercises editorial discretion over the dissemination of content, not the exact process used,” he said.

For and against

The Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, arguing it interferes with the free enterprise rights of private businesses.

Jeff Dillon, a lobbyist with Americans for Prosperity, argued it unfairly burdens any new entrants to social media markets, burdening their potential growth with untenable costs to comply with the law. Additionally, at least two courts have expressed skepticism of the viability of the law, so why should Ohio throw money, lawyers and other resources at the idea?

“Taxpayer money is limited and valuable, and the cost of litigation would cost Ohio taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money defending a law that is so clearly riddled with constitutional concerns; that money could be better spent helping tackle other real, pressing issues facing Ohio today,” he said.

A trade association of social media companies opposed the bill as well, as did the ACLU, arguing it simply isn’t the job of government to “dictate to private companies and entities what speech they must entertain, host or tolerate.”

Adam Candeub, a law professor from Michigan State University, testified in support of the bill in committee. He argued social media today forms the modern public square. However, the companies who control that square are nothing but “political actors” who “censor and silence those with whom they disagree.”

Candeub was appointed to work in a senior telecommunications role in the U.S. Department of Justice under President Donald Trump. He has a long history of bashing social media companies over allegations of anti-conservative bias, according to POLITICO, including him working as an attorney for white nationalist Jared Taylor in a lawsuit against Twitter alleging the social network censored him.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP gubernatorial candidate shares photo of self in front of swastika

Update, 1:40 p.m.: After this article was published, Blystone removed the photo in question from social media. Also, a union depicted in the photo said it did not endorse Blystone and doesn’t know who’s holding the swastika.

A longshot candidate challenging Ohio’s incumbent governor in a Republican primary shared a photo of himself in front of a sign depicting an image of syringes arranged as a swastika — the chosen symbol of Nazi Germany as it waged a systematic slaughter of millions of Jews and others in Europe.

Joe Blystone, a cattle farmer often seen campaigning in a cowboy hat and bushy beard, posted a photo Friday on his campaign’s Twitter account. It shows him standing in front of a banner for a local of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Behind him, a man holds a sign reading “NO JAB NO JOB” — presumably a statement in opposition to employers requiring vaccination as a term of employment. That sign shows the swastika-syringes image.

Blystone’s campaign did not respond to questions about why Blystone is distributing a photo of himself in front of Nazi imagery. After this story published, he deleted some social media posts containing the photo, although it still remains on his website as of about 1:40 p.m.

John Cash, president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 900, said the photo was taken at a rally. However, he said the union has not endorsed Blystone and is not in any way affiliated with him. He said he and other union officials have no idea who the individual is holding up the swastika.

In a March interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Blystone said he’s not opposed to vaccines.

“I’m not anti-vax. I’m not anti-mask. I’m pro-choice,” he said. “If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you want to get a vax, get a vax. It shouldn’t be our government pushing you one way or another.”

Both Blystone and challenger Jim Renacci are seeking to oust incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine in the Republican primary. Election Day is Tuesday, May 3. The Republican victor will take on one of two candidates running for the Democratic ticket.

The photo follows a pattern of Nazi imagery and rhetoric popping up in conservative political demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates.

In April 2020, Ohio Senator Andrew Brenner pledged not to allow Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton to turn the state into Nazi Germany. Rep. Kris Jordan connected masks, vaccines, and vaccination records to the Holocaust. U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel made similar comments. Rep. Nino Vitale called Acton, who is Jewish, a “globalist health director.” The term “globalist” is used as an anti-Semitic slur. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson compared a requirement to show proof of vaccination for bars and restaurants in Washington D.C. to Nazi officials demanding identification from Jewish citizens.

Meanwhile, citizens have been seen hoisting Nazi imagery outside the Statehouse during a coronavirus protest and a sign with a swastika at an anti-vaccine protest outside of a League of Women Voters event. One alleged neo-Nazi with a criminal history was seen during the lockdown protests of April 2020 holding a sign showing a picture of a rat with the Star of David on its side and “The Real Plague” above it. At an anti-mask demonstration at a September 2021 schoolboard meeting in Worthington, two demonstrators were accused of performing Nazi salutes, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“Medical procedures designed to save lives are not comparable to the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and millions of others were murdered,” said Sara Scheinbach, a senior associate regional director of the Cleveland region of the Anti-Defamation League, which advocates against anti-Semitism.

“All leaders, especially politicians, should call out these obscene comparisons, rather than celebrate them.”

Nazi officials implemented rules forcing Jewish people to wear identifying badges between 1939 and 1945, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. It was part of a campaign to stigmatize and dehumanize Jews and segregate and control them before deporting them to concentration camps.

The museum spoke out against a national leader of the anti-vaccination movement who said at a rally that things are worse today than they were for Anne Frank, a teenaged girl who died along with most her family during the Holocaust.

“Making reckless comparisons to the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews, for a political agenda is outrageous and deeply offensive,” the museum said in a statement. “Those who carelessly invoke Anne Frank, the star badge, and the Nuremberg Trials exploit history and the consequences of hate.”


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ohio GOP gubernatorial candidate shares photo of self in front of swastika

A longshot candidate challenging Ohio’s incumbent governor in a Republican primary shared a photo of himself in front of a sign depicting an image of syringes arranged as a swastika — the chosen symbol of Nazi Germany as it waged a systematic slaughter of millions of Jews and others in Europe.

Joe Blystone, a cattle farmer often seen campaigning in a cowboy hat and bushy beard, posted a photo Friday on his campaign’s Twitter account. It shows him standing in front of a banner for a local of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.

Behind him, a man holds a sign reading “NO JAB NO JOB” — presumably a statement in opposition to employers requiring vaccination as a term of employment. That sign shows the swastika-syringes image.

Blystone’s campaign did not respond to questions about why Blystone is distributing a photo of himself in front of Nazi imagery. The local and national offices of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers did not respond to inquiries.

“I’m not anti-vax. I’m not anti-mask. I’m pro-choice,” Blystone said in a March interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer. “If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you want to get a vax, get a vax. It shouldn’t be our government pushing you one way or another.”

Both Blystone and challenger Jim Renacci are seeking to oust incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine in the Republican primary. Election Day is Tuesday, May 3. The Republican victor will take on one of two candidates running for the Democratic ticket.

The photo follows a pattern of Nazi imagery and rhetoric popping up in conservative political demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions and vaccine mandates.

In April 2020, Ohio Senator Andrew Brenner pledged not to allow Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton to turn the state into Nazi Germany. Rep. Kris Jordan connected masks, vaccines, and vaccination records to the Holocaust. U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel made similar comments. Rep. Nino Vitale called Acton, who is Jewish, a “globalist health director.” The term “globalist” is used as an anti-Semitic slur. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson compared a requirement to show proof of vaccination for bars and restaurants in Washington D.C. to Nazi officials demanding identification from Jewish citizens.

Meanwhile, citizens have been seen hoisting Nazi imagery outside the Statehouse during a coronavirus protest and a sign with a swastika at an anti-vaccine protest outside of a League of Women Voters event. One alleged neo-Nazi with a criminal history was seen during the lockdown protests of April 2020 holding a sign showing a picture of a rat with the Star of David on its side and “The Real Plague” above it. At an anti-mask demonstration at a September 2021 schoolboard meeting in Worthington, two demonstrators were accused of performing Nazi salutes, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

“Medical procedures designed to save lives are not comparable to the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and millions of others were murdered,” said Sara Scheinbach, a senior associate regional director of the Cleveland region of the Anti-Defamation League, which advocates against anti-Semitism.

“All leaders, especially politicians, should call out these obscene comparisons, rather than celebrate them.”

Nazi officials implemented rules forcing Jewish people to wear identifying badges between 1939 and 1945, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. It was part of a campaign to stigmatize and dehumanize Jews and segregate and control them before deporting them to concentration camps.

The museum spoke out against a national leader of the anti-vaccination movement who said at a rally that things are worse today than they were for Anne Frank, a teenaged girl who died along with most her family during the Holocaust.

“Making reckless comparisons to the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews, for a political agenda is outrageous and deeply offensive,” the museum said in a statement. “Those who carelessly invoke Anne Frank, the star badge, and the Nuremberg Trials exploit history and the consequences of hate.”

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Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Ohio Republicans introduce bill to expand access to ivermectin, other debunked COVID-19 cures

Several Ohio House Republicans have revived efforts to expand COVID-19 patients’ access to ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and other drugs that have been shown to be ineffective in treating the disease.

The legislation would compel health departments to enter into agreements to “promote and increase distribution” of the drugs. If health departments decline to do so, the legislation would allow citizens to sue the health departments to force their compliance.

House Bill 431 would also prohibit any health department from acting to “suppress the promotion of or access” to the drugs or to “reprimand, threaten, or penalize” a health care professional from handing them out.

Besides ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, the legislation gives COVID-19 patients the right to use azithromycin (an antibacterial), budesonide, or any other drug that “may be proven effective or deemed beneficial” by a physician.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Kris Jordan, R-Ostrander, did not respond to a call to his office. Most the bill co-sponsors have also signed onto various House bills limiting vaccine mandates against COVID-19 and other communicable diseases.

Both hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are useful in treating a range of conditions in humans. However, multiple, large-scale, double-blind studies have shown the drugs to be ineffective against COVID-19.

For instance, March research published in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed 3,500 patients with COVID-19. Some received ivermectin, while others received a placebo or other treatment. The study found ivermectin did not result in a lower rate of hospital admission or shorten the length of hospital stays. A randomized trial of hydroxychloroquine patients, also published in the NEJM, yielded similar results.

The Ohio Board of Pharmacy, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Various conservative political and media figures ranging from former President Donald Trump to podcaster Joe Rogan have championed ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and repeatedly rebuffed various health officials and experts who have urged against using the drugs to treat COVID-19.

The Ohio Board of Pharmacy issued a warning last summer noting increased rates of ivermectin overdoses, sometimes via animal formulations of the drug used to deworm livestock.

“Adverse effects associated with ivermectin misuse and overdose are increasing, as shown by a rise in calls to poison control centers reporting overdoses and more people experiencing adverse effects,” the warning states.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pharmaceutical companies, has not authorized the use of ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.

The National Institute of Health, which offers treatment guidelines for physicians, says there’s insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of ivermectin or budesonide. Merck, which manufactures ivermectin, warns against its use on COVID-19.

The NIH specifically recommends against using hydroxychloroquine or azithromycin given their lack of demonstrated benefit in clinical trials and potential adverse effects.

The legislation makes no mention of various COVID-19 therapies recommended by the NIH.

Ohio Republicans, especially in the House, have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the safety and efficacy of vaccination. Gov. Mike DeWine signed a law last year that temporarily banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools. The House has passed similar legislation that would ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates from schools and employers, though it has languished in the Senate.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Recreational marijuana could mean $375 million per year in Ohio taxes, OSU researchers say

Recreational marijuana in Ohio could mean up to $375 million in annual tax revenue for the state, according to new research from Ohio State University.

The study, released just in time for America’s annual, informal marijuana celebration day Wednesday, uses tax estimates from an initiated statute effort to legalize marijuana in the state, possibly via the November 2022 ballot.

The study pairs tax rates (10% in addition to Ohio’s 5.75% state sales tax) from the organizers’ proposal, population growth estimates, and year-over-year revenue data from six other states (Michigan, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Colorado) with recreational programs to make projections for Ohio.

Depending on the bullishness of growth estimates and product pricing, the researchers estimated the state will earn somewhere between $276 million to $375 million by the fifth year of operation.

“Whatever tax structure is adopted, our analysis suggests it is reasonable to predict that Ohio would collect hundreds of millions in annual cannabis tax revenues from a mature adult-use cannabis market,” the researchers, from OSU’s Drug Enforcement and Policy Center concluded. “But the amount of tax revenue collected would likely still represent a small percentage of Ohio’s $60+ billion annual budget.”

The study notes its limitations — it calls its analysis a “best guess” based on consumption patterns, price, tax structure, program rollout, regulatory hiccups and others.

Organizers gathered about 133,000 signatures to force state lawmakers, over the course of about four months ending in late May, to consider their proposed legislation to legalize the drug for adult sales and use. If lawmakers decline to pass the proposal, the organizers must gather the same amount of signatures again and then can place the issue on the general election ballot in November.

Other legislative efforts to legalize recreational marijuana have failed, and top Republicans signaled opposition to the initiated statute earlier this year.

As of November 2021, recreational marijuana is legal in 18 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

You can read the study here.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

He teaches critical race theory. He has problems with GOP efforts to ban it

There’s a certain “slander” at the heart of dueling bills aimed to limit how teachers talk to students about race, sexuality, history, and politics, according to Timothy Messer-Kruse.

If you read the legislation, he said, their language presupposes educators are engaged in practices like indoctrinating, guilt-tripping, and forcing their personal politics onto students.

As a grad-student level professor of critical race theory — the target of legislative bans from conservative lawmakers nationwide — in the ethnic studies department at Bowling Green State University, he said in an interview it’s a policy driven on false pretenses.

Two Ohio bills in particular take aim at how teachers handle sensitive topics. One, House Bill 327, forbids teachers at elementary, high school and colleges from teaching any of seven “divisive concepts” including:

  • “That any individual cannot succeed or achieve equality because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin”
  • “That meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist”
  • “That individuals, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, color, sex, religion, or national origin”

Another bill adopts the “divisive concepts” component and folds it into similar legislation that blocks school districts from adopting curriculum around: critical race theory; intersectional theory; The 1619 Project; diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes; and inherited racial guilt.

That legislation, House Bill 616, also prohibits the teaching of “sexual orientation or gender identity” to kindergarten through third grade grade students. Any such teaching must be “age-appropriate” for students in fourth through twelfth grade. The legislation doesn’t define the term “age-appropriate”

What the bills are really about, according to Kruse, is stopping anti-racist activities, and tempering free expression around racial dynamics, discrimination and bias in America.

“The purpose of actually defining what these supposedly divisive comments are, is to create a chilling atmosphere where teachers and university instructors self-censor and self-regulate out of fear of crossing these very fuzzy lines that are created in the legislation,” he said.

Critical race theory is an academic approach to law, politics and economics that essentially assumes laws can and do bear unequal outcomes along racial lines — even if the black and white text of the laws don’t explicitly mention race.

An example of its usefulness, per Kruse: anti-lynching laws. In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, named for the 14-year-old Black boy who was tortured and murdered after a rumor circulated that he whistled at a white woman. Passage marked success after 200 legislative efforts to do so failed over the past 100 years, according to the Washington Post.

More than 4,000 Black Americans were murdered by white mobs since the 1880s, according to Kruse. The failure to pass such laws — which the U.S. Senate even apologized for in 2005 — are a prime case study.

“This long history of the refusal to create a legal remedy is in itself institutional racism,” he said. “That’s an example of the way critical race theory can help us understand our own situation. Our own present moment.”

The “divisive concepts” bill was introduced by Rep. Sarah Fowler Arthur, R-Ashtabula. Making her case on the bill to lawmakers, she alleged that unspecified schools are imposing “ideological test[s]” on students in order to get a good grade. She called it an “unconscionable perversion” to hold eight-year-olds responsible for the crimes of past generations.

Arthur discussed the bill further in an interview with WEWS in March, using the Holocaust as an example. She said teachers can still teach the atrocities of the Holocaust under the bill, but they should still “point out the value that each individual brings to the table.” She said the experiences of Jewish victims should be taught, as should those of Nazi soldiers. She described the Holocaust — which involved the systematic genocide of 6 million Jewish people — as a racial conflict that killed hundreds of thousands.

The expanded bill was introduced by GOP Reps. Jean Schmidt and Mike Loychik. Schmidt was captured on video last week fleeing from television reporters asking her about the legislation. Loychik on Thursday wrote on social media that educators should not be “teaching transgenderism or allowing teachers to discuss their sex life with kindergarteners.” They released a joint statement on the bill.

“Children deserve a quality education that is fair, unbiased and age appropriate,” they said. “This legislation promotes free and fair discussion.”

House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said lawmakers are still working out the particulars but noted the concept of not “indoctrinating children” has widespread public support. When asked where in Ohio children are being indoctrinated, he avoided a direct answer.

“Whether they are or they could be, we look at this as a preventive measure,” he said. “If nobody is, then going forward, this is not really going to change things.”

Kruse offered another interpretation of the bills, as primary elections draw nearer.

“It’s just headline bait. It’s not an actual sincere and honest attempt to legislate,” he said.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Ohio Republicans discussing impeachment of state's chief justice after redistricting map ruling

A ranking House Republican left open the possibility of impeaching the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, which this week rejected Republicans’ third proposed legislative redistricting map.

During a private GOP caucus phone call Thursday, House Majority Leader Bill Seitz and Rep. Jon Cross voiced support for impeaching Justice Maureen O’Connor, according to a person on the call. O’Connor, also a Republican, has acted as a swing vote on two high-stakes redistricting cases and sided with Democrats on the bench finding the maps disproportionately favored Republicans in violation of the Ohio Constitution.

Through a spokesman, Seitz, a longtime Cincinnati lawmaker and influential caucus member, declined to comment on caucus discussions but said Friday “nothing has been decided, and that all options are on the table.”

Cross, a Kenton Republican, declined comment, noting “we (I) don’t comment about caucus meetings.”

The call, held Thursday afternoon, lasted about 20 minutes, the source on the call said. In it, Seitz presented an argument that included old precedent for the House moving to impeach a justice after an unfavorable court decision.

When Cross offered what was described as a more fiery argument for impeachment, House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, ended the call, according to the source. Cupp’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the caucus call or his position on impeachment.

Cupp spent six years on the Ohio Supreme Court bench, serving alongside O’Connor for his entire tenure.

On Facebook Thursday, hours before the caucus call, Cross wrote “enough is enough,” and that O’Connor had violated Ohio law related to altering the time, place or manner of an election.

The claim about Seitz’ support marks the most senior legislator in favor of the possibility of impeaching O’Connor. Also Thursday, Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, a committee chairman, said on social media “it’s time to impeach Maureen O’Connor now.”

The hubbub comes in response to the court’s redistricting ruling late Wednesday evening. A four-justice majority found “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the most recent maps violated the constitution, particularly the provisions prohibiting partisan favoritism. While uncertainty remains, the ruling could force lawmakers to either move the May primary election date or create a second primary election date for non-statewide races. In a letter this week, Secretary of State Frank LaRose indicated the plan for now is to proceed with two separate primary elections.

The decision on whether to pursue impeachment won’t be up to him, but Gov. Mike DeWine advised against the move Friday.

“This is an extraordinary measure to take,” he said. “I think we don’t want to go down that pathway, because we disagree with a decision by a court, because we disagree with a decision by an individual judge or justice. Not a good idea.”

Three House Republicans publicly floated the concept of impeaching DeWine himself in 2020 for his COVID-19 response. The idea went nowhere.

The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a second, GOP-proposed congressional redistricting map after overturning the first effort on constitutional grounds.

Not long before the redistricting fiasco, O’Connor publicly broke from Republicans on judicial integrity. The Ohio Republican Party, with the 2020 presidential election looming, blasted a lower court’s ruling on election procedures and Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye as a “partisan judge.” In an unusual move, O’Connor called the statement “disgraceful” and “deceitful” and emphasized the concept of judicial independence.

“This is a blatant and unfounded attack on the independence of the Ohio judiciary,” she wrote.

“To accuse a judge of deciding the matter before him on partisan politics and further accuse the judge of ‘obstruction of his judicial responsibility’ is without merit and is meant to further the false narrative that judges have no conscience, no legal responsibilities, and no capacity to decide what the law is beyond the raw politics of the issue.”

An impeachment would be an extreme, though not unprecedented reaction. In fact, the Ohio Legislative Service Commission notes all eight impeachments in Ohio’s history were against judges. For instance, in 1808, members of the Ohio House grew angry enough at a ruling by Justice George Tod that they sought his impeachment. He survived via one vote in the state Senate, according to the court. Justice Calvin Pease was impeached and acquitted as well around the same time.

The Ohio Supreme Court gave state lawmakers until March 28 to submit a new proposal. The Ohio Redistricting Commission, a bipartisan panel of statewide and legislative officials, is scheduled to meet Saturday.

Morgan Trau contributed to this story.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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Who paid the bribes? Ohio judge demands answers in FirstEnergy shareholders’ suit

About seven months ago, FirstEnergy, as a company, admitted to federal law enforcement to paying out two, multimillion dollar sets of bribes: one to the former speaker of the Ohio House and one to the state’s top utility regulator.

U.S. District Judge John A. Adams — in a hearing Wednesday and a related order Friday — is demanding answers to questions about the utility’s role in a public corruption scandal that has festered unresolved for nearly two years.

“Who is it that paid the bribes?” Adams asked Jeroen van Kwawegen, a lawyer for investors in a shareholders’ lawsuit related to the criminal case.

Kwawegen said he couldn’t divulge the information, given it was obtained during the pre-trial exchange of evidence, known as discovery, which is typically confidential.

“You are wasting my time. You are not here to answer my questions. You are here to duck and avoid,” Adams said before abruptly adjourning the hearing, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The hearing centered on a proposed settlement for FirstEnergy’s shareholders calling on the company’s insurers to pay them $180 million for damages caused by the scandal.

Adams said in the order Friday that he adjourned Wednesday’s hearing given the lawyers’ “steadfast refusal to answer even the most basic questions.” He said that settlement discussions are generally protected from disclosure. However, he cited cases in which courts found that information obtained prior to those settlement talks that may have come up are not protected.

Thus, he ordered the parties to file arguments on this point, due March 16. If Adams determines there were no good grounds to claim secrecy, then they get another chance to answer his questions. If they still won’t answer, he threatened sanctions, including “removal” off their role as counsel for “failure to comply with the Court’s lawful order to disclose information,” Adams wrote.

Jennifer Young, a FirstEnergy spokeswoman, said the settlement complements the “substantial enhancements and actions that the company and our Board have implemented to strengthen our governance and compliance programs.” She declined further comment.

Seven months and no answers

On July 21, 2020, FBI officials arrested former GOP House Speaker Larry Householder and four political allies, accusing them of secretly taking $60 million from FirstEnergy and using it for personal enrichment, political gain, and to pass an energy bill to net the company an estimated $1.3 billion.

Two men, Householder’s political strategist Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes, pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge Oct. 29, 2020. That same day, citing an internal investigation, the company announced the firings of CEO Charles Jones and top executives Michael Dowling and Dennis Chack.

By November 2020, the company publicly disclosed making a $4.3 million payment to a company owned by Sam Randazzo, the chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, just before he was appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine. FBI agents raided Randazzo’s apartment that same day.

In July 2021, the company paid a $230 million penalty as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. FirstEnergy, to possibly dismiss a charge of wire fraud, agreed to cooperate with investigators.

The company admitted that it, via its employees and officers, “conspired with public officials” and others to pay those officials millions “in exchange for specific official action for FirstEnergy Corp.’s benefit.”

After his arrest, Householder was ousted as speaker but remained a member of the House. He was expelled by the chamber in June of 2021. His case is set for trial in January 2023.

Randazzo has not been charged with a crime. He resigned shortly after the FBI raided his condo. In a statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer the day FirstEnergy announced its cooperation with the DOJ, Randazzo said he neither asked nor agreed to perform any executive action on behalf of FirstEnergy.

Any payments made to him as a consultant, he said, “were in accordance with the terms of that agreement, and following review and approval by senior executives at FirstEnergy.”

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Ohio governor appoints former lawmaker to elections board who hyped up 2020 voter fraud claims

Gov. Mike DeWine appointed a former lawmaker to a state board that oversees elections who has publicly amplified debunked notions of election fraud in 2020.

Christina Hagan-Nemeth, who served in the Ohio House before mounting two unsuccessful congressional bids, was appointed Tuesday to the Ohio Elections Commission. Her term runs through the end of 2026.

A review of her public social media posts and talk radio appearances show she amplified the unsupported and repeatedly discredited claim that President Joe Biden somehow stole the election from Donald Trump. With the appointment, she now sits on a panel responsible for reviewing allegations of campaign finance violations and other offenses. The commission can levy fines, make criminal referrals, and intervene in campaigns at politically sensitive junctures.

“The American people are entitled to an honest election,” Hagan wrote on social media Nov. 7, 2020, the day TV networks first projected Biden would win enough states to clinch the electoral college.

“All legal votes should be counted. If you think these are controversial statements you must not agree w/ safeguarding the sacred value of our individual votes as Americans.”

Ten days later, she made similar comments.

“I’ve never prayed for fraud. But I have prayed that if it exists and especially to the degree to which its exposure can change the media’s projected outcome of the election…That it should be brought to light in a profound and irrefutable way,” she wrote. “I’m on team #EveryLegalVoteShouldCount.”

Hagan, a Republican, did not respond to a phone call, text, or message to her personal Facebook account.

DeWine has walked a tightrope since 2020 of denying the existence of widespread voting fraud but refraining from criticism of Trump — the leading proponent of the “stop the steal” movement. Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper on Jan. 3, 2021, DeWine refused to answer when asked why so many people believe that widespread election fraud occurred in 2020.

He didn’t answer questions about Hagan’s statements, only noting through a spokesman that her appointment was recommended by Republican leaders in the state House and Senate.

On Jan. 6, 2021, a crowd of hundreds of Trump supporters, swept up in his claims of a stolen election, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol seeking to halt certification of the 2020 election. Over the course of about seven hours, the attackers injured 114 police officers and caused about $1.5 million in damages, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. Several officers died in the aftermath, including four by suicide. A Trump supporter was shot and killed after crawling through a transom window toward members of congress.

Two weeks later, Hagan posted to her Facebook page an article written by Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, an anti-LGBTQ organization. The article depicts some Jan. 6 rallygoers as “peaceful protesters who desperately wanted to be counted.” Others, it states, weren’t peaceful but “were just as concerned about the future of elections after what happened in November.”

Discussing the one-year anniversary of the riot on a conservative talk radio show, Hagan mocked a comment from Vice President Kamala Harris comparing Jan. 6 to other hallowed days in American history like 9/11 or the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I think the most dramatic word that we can accurately use [to describe Jan. 6] would be a riot, but not even, because there were really — nothing was defamed, nothing was attacked to any degree,” she said.

In February 2021, Hagan shared an article from a conservative news outlet about the Supreme Court’s review of election fraud lawsuits.

“SCOTUS now adds ELECTION FRAUD LAWSUITS to List of Cases To Be Considered… Not Loving the timing… But better late than never,” she said.

She made similar comments a few days later, saying it “could get interesting” that the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider voter fraud cases in three states Biden won. The Supreme Court denied request to consider the cases later that month.

On a few occasions, she has accused Democrats of election fraud. In May 2020, the U.S. House passed legislation that would have prohibited states from requiring any form of identification to obtain an absentee ballot. Hagan said this shows that Democrats are trying to “rig the next election.” She made similar comments on talk radio about two bills that would overhaul election administration via prohibiting voter identification requirements, reinstating parts of the Voter Rights Act that were struck down by the Supreme Court, and more.

“They are always, always aiming to undermine,” Hagan said. “And every single word that comes out of their mouth is orchestrated for that intentional destruction.”

Elections commission

The Ohio Elections Commission is a seven-member panel comprised of three Republicans, three Democrats, and one independent.

On Tuesday, DeWine also appointed John Lyall, a Democrat, to serve on the commission.

As recently as last week, Hagan circulated petitions to run for congress, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But on March 4, she publicly announced she wouldn’t run for the seat.

She first won office to the Ohio House in 2010 at the age of 21, where she served for eight years, the constitutional maximum. In 2018, she lost in a congressional primary to current Rep. Anthony Gonzalez — one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in connection with Jan. 6 and has denounced the idea that the election was stolen.

At the time, she used a campaign ad calling for a need to “secure our borders” and stop illegal immigration from Mexico. Snopes, the fact checking website, later reported the ad used footage from an Italian TV network showing Moroccan immigrants crossing into Spain.

Trump endorsed Hagan in her 2020 run for the same seat, according to WKYC.

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BUSTED: Gun lobbyist wrote Ohio GOP lawmakers’ ‘permitless carry’ speech

Last April, two Republicans in the Ohio House told lawmakers their “constitutional carry” bill would ease the bureaucratic hassle of undergoing training and a background check to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon.

They didn’t write the speech.

Chris Door, the “no compromise” gun lobbyist and executive director of Ohio Gun Owners, did. Metadata attached to a copy of their testimony on the legislature’s website shows his name as the author of the document.

On April 15, 2021, Reps. Tom Brinkman and Kris Jordan stood before the House Government Oversight Committee introducing House Bill 227. The bill would allow anyone 21 and older who can lawfully own a weapon to carry it concealed on their persons.

Dorr said in text messages and an interview Thursday he “maybe/probably” wrote the speech, but he couldn’t remember for sure. In it, the two lawmakers said carrying an openly displayed firearm in Ohio is already legal. So why should carrying a concealed weapon without a permit be illegal?

“Most gun owners know that openly carrying their firearm is not always practical,” Brinkman said.

“In order to avoid unnecessary hassle from the public or law enforcement, one may decide to put a coat or jacket over their firearm. Sadly, that individual instantly turns into a felon if they have not gone through some the government-mandated rigmarole first, which is a violation of their God-given rights stipulated under the Second Amendment.”

Brinkman said he doesn’t know who wrote it but it’s possible his staff went back and forth with Dorr to “polish” the speech.

“I have no idea who writes my testimony. I never write my testimony. I never write my floor speeches. That’s what staff is for,” Brinkman said.

Lawmakers on Wednesday passed a separate, Senate version of a permitless carry bill and sent it to Gov. Mike DeWine. The Jordan-Brinkman is what’s known as a “companion bill” — part of a legislative strategy in which proponents run two versions of the same legislation in both the House and Senate at the same time to boost its odds of becoming law.

Dorr writing the testimony is among the clearest signs of the close working relationship between gun lobbyists and Republican lawmakers.

For instance, Sen. George Lang, a West Chester Township Republican, co-sponsored the permitless carry bill that was sent to DeWine. He owns an insurance company that sells firearms liability policies for those who shoot others in purported self-defense. His business partners include the Buckeye Firearms Association’s executive director and another lawyer with the lobbying group.

Financial disclosures show Lang has earned more than $100,000 annually from the business since at least 2016. He seemingly acknowledged the possibility of a conflict of interest in a 2020 interview.

‘We tried to fix the bill’

On Tuesday, Republicans on the House Government Oversight Committee adopted two last-minute amendments to the permitless carry bill sent to the governor, one of which gun owners said could allow law enforcement to stop and frisk people who are spotted carrying a concealed weapon.

During the floor debate Wednesday, Brinkman tried to force an amendment on the floor removing the committee’s changes, but was blocked on procedural grounds by House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima.

Both the House and the Senate passed the bill shortly afterward.

Dorr, wearing sunglasses for a video posted to his Facebook account Wednesday, praised Brinkman for trying to scrap the committee changes.

“We tried to fix the bill on the house floor,” he said. “Of course, they used procedure to cut that down. He deserves a big shoutout.”

Besides the local organization, Dorr and his brothers represent affiliate gun owner organizations in 11 states. They generally seek to outflank Republicans and other gun lobby organizations from the right via a no-compromise advocacy and grass roots approach. In 2021, Dorr and his brothers were the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning podcast series investigating “[the] ‘no compromise’ gun rights activists that illuminated the profound differences and deepening schism between American conservatives.”

Both Dorr and Brinkman said Thursday they expect DeWine will ultimately sign the bill.

Dorr said DeWine tends to drag his feet on gun issues but will likely pull through — he’s facing primary challenges from the right and doesn’t want to make the election about guns. Brinkman said while the vote Wednesday fell short of the 60-vote supermajority required for a veto, the Republican caucus could muster requisite support from its 64 members.

“My feeling of, non-concern — my lack of concern is I know we’ve passed it and can override his veto,” Brinkman said. “Whether it’s one step or two.”

Jordan did not respond to inquiries left with his office.

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Ohio House won’t release texts between Republican House Rep and indicted ex-Speaker

Lawyers with the Ohio House of Representatives denied a public records requests for text messages between a sitting lawmaker and the former House Speaker, who was expelled by his peers while under a racketeering indictment related to alleged public corruption.

State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, and Larry Householder regularly exchange text messages and talk on the phone. Edwards said they always avoid discussing the criminal case against Householder and usually, but not always, avoid public policy discussions as well.

However, a lawyer with the Ohio House denied a public records request Tuesday for texts between the two, saying none could be located. Edwards, in an interview late Tuesday, offered a simple explanation.

“You’re going down the rabbit hole saying Jay Edwards deletes texts with Larry Householder. No, that’s not true,” he said. “Jay Edwards deletes all texts. To members, to other people; I go through at night and erase text messages I don’t find useful.”

Householder was arrested in July 2020 and dethroned as speaker shortly thereafter. He has pleaded guilty and awaits trial, expected this fall. He was expelled from the House in June 2021.

The texts between the two men first came to light when The Columbus Dispatch reported that Householder texted Edwards on Feb. 18 about a data privacy bill Edwards opposed. Edwards’ opposition staved off a vote that day.

The Ohio Capital Journal requested all texts between Edwards and Householder between June 1, 2021 (about the time the House expelled Householder) and Feb. 18, 2022, the date of the request.

Governments can destroy certain records, but “only if they are destroyed in compliance with a properly approved records retention schedule,” according to guidance from the attorney general.

Ohio public records law allows anyone to request and receive copies of documents from government agencies and government officials.

Josh Sabo, a House attorney and policy advisor to the current house speaker, said after a search that “we determined that we have no records responsive to your request.”

In his email, he cited House policy that allows lawmakers to destroy “transient records,” which includes documents “that serve to convey information of temporary importance; documents in lieu of oral communication, such as telephone messages, post-it notes, text messages, voicemail, and fax transmittal cover sheets; and drafts.”

He didn’t respond to follow-up questions, including whether this means Edwards has been destroying texts with Householder. The House cited the “transient” records policy in denying a request for text messages from Householder referenced in a criminal complaint against him.

Edwards said he’d hand over the text if he still had it. He said he and Householder are old friends. Their texts, he claimed, center more around Perry County, Southeast Ohio, Hocking College and life in general than statehouse issues.

“Quite frankly, I go through my phone and erase a lot of text messages, and if it’s anything that I feel like is a public record, and that is the case, then I wouldn’t have erased it,” he said.

Edwards previously served as a member of House leadership when Householder presided as the speaker. Neil Clark, a lobbyist who was arrested alongside Householder, told Cleveland.com that Edwards is “Representative 8” in the Householder complaint.

Edwards voted for House Bill 6 — the legislation at the center of the prosecution against Householder — and was one of 22 House lawmakers to vote against expelling Householder.

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Ohio House passes bills to stiffen 'riot' penalties; stop police from limiting guns on scene

The Ohio House passed two bills Wednesday that together would create new penalties and stiffen preexisting ones for people engaged in what the law considers to be “riots,” and another revoking a current police power to limit the transfer of guns and weapons during a “riot.”

House Bill 109 creates new felony offenses of “riot assault,” “riot vandalism,” and “bias motivated intimidation.” It also enhances penalties for existing offenses like rioting, aggravated rioting, disorderly conduct, and vandalism.

It also borrows language from state laws dealing with funding or supporting terrorism to expand the offense of racketeering to include knowingly providing material support to or organizing a crowd into a riot.

Lastly, it creates a new avenue for police officers to file civil lawsuits if they’re injured during a riot, if their civil rights are infringed while on duty, or if a “false complaint” is filed against the officer.

The legislation passed nearly along party lines, though Rep. Jamie Callender, R-Concord, voted with Democrats in opposition. It comes less than two years after protests erupted nationally when a Minneapolis police officer was captured on camera murdering George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. A vast majority of those demonstrations were peaceful, though an estimated 6% nationally turned chaotic and destructive.

The second bill would strike a section of current law that allows the top police officer in a jurisdiction, when suppressing a riot or when one might arise, to cordon off the area and block through-traffic. That officer can prohibit the sale, dispensing or transportation of firearms, ammo, dynamite, or other explosives.

It passed on party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed.

Riots

Its sponsors, Reps. Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, and Cindy Abrams, R-Harrison, said the bill is focused on the small groups of “agitators” who hijack peaceful protests and turn to destruction. Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, R-Perrysburg, made similar comments, at one point suggesting that some of the protesters in 2020 were “bused in and driven in from other parts of the country.”

Democrats described the bill as an affront to people expressing their rights to speak and peacefully assemble. Rep. Dave Leland, D-Columbus, emphasized that most of what the bill targets is already illegal.

Much of the opposition centers on the broad definition of the term “riot.” Ohio law defines a riot as a group of four or more people engaged in disorderly conduct with the purpose of committing a misdemeanor. When the bill passed in committee, several social justice protesters stood in protests with red “X” letters taped over their coronavirus masks.

Several Democrats noted the racial dynamics of the issue — a mostly white group of lawmakers passed legislation to crack down on protests that formed in response to racial injustice.

“When we look at the details of the bill, there are inadvertent consequences for people simply wanting to speak and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” said Rep. Dontavius Jarrells, D-Columbus.

Carruthers said the bill isn’t about race or even any specific protest.

“This is not a racial issue, not even close,” she said. “This is about someone throwing a brick through a building.”

Guns

Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, introduced the guns bill, a major priority of the Buckeye Firearms Association. He said while the governor and health department did not close down any gun stores during the COVID-19 lockdowns of early 2020, the bill ensures it remains that way in the future.

Democrats in the chamber said the bill infringes on a doctrine within the Ohio Constitution that calls for “home rule” on policing issues. Rep. Jessica Miranda offered an amendment to reshape the bill to continue to allow local police to limit firearm sales and transfers in a cordoned off area where a riot is taking place.

The amendment was voted down.


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

This anti-vaxxer says there are ‘fetal cells in foods like Gatorade and Hot Pockets’ -- and she just won a local school board race

For most of the pandemic, Dr. Elizabeth Laffay, a licensed doctor of osteopathic medicine, worked from the outside in.

She told state lawmakers that vaccines kill; she touted dubious COVID-19 treatments like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine on talk radio; she stormed a Big Lots with a small and barefaced crowd to protest its mask requirement; and she pushed her local school board to rescind its mask requirement.

However, in November, with a $1000 financial boost from U.S. Senate Candidate Jane Timken’s “Jobs For a New Economy” (JANE) PAC, Laffay won a seat on the Huron City School District Board of Education.

Laffay’s election epitomizes a confluence of trends as the new coronavirus approaches its third year on earth: the explosion of anti-science and anti-vaccination fervor; conservatives’ new emphasis on school board races as masks and “critical race theory” animate their political base; and doctors using their credentials to spread health misinformation in the face of medical licensing boards that have refused to intercede.

“We have been largely kept from seeing the consequences that these injections have been clearly though quietly associated with, including neurologic damage, convulsions, illness, death, continued spread and continued contraction of the disease,” Laffay said to lawmakers this spring, testifying in support of legislation to ban any (not just COVID-19) vaccine mandates.

Real world data has demonstrated COVID-19 vaccines to be enormously effective in preventing death and hospitalization from the disease. In Ohio, 94% of people who were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 in 2021 were unvaccinated. Meanwhile, studies have not linked vaccination to any increase in mortality.

Ohio, in the midst of a case surge delivering twice the caseload seen in the pre-vaccination winter of 2020, remains the 8th least vaccinated state in the nation. About 60% of state residents have received at least one dose, compared to about 74% of all Americans.

Besides attacking vaccines, Laffay has regularly downplayed the severity of the infections they prevent. At a March 9 state legislative hearing, Laffay declared that the “medical pandemic is over.”

Since then, 11,181 Ohioans have died from COVID-19, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. Sixty-five came from Erie County, where Laffay now holds public office.

In an interview with Tom Roten, a conservative talk radio host, she said she has been prescribing ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine — both of which have been championed by conservatives as cures and preventatives for COVID-19 over objections from the medical community and the drug’s manufacturers who have pleaded against the practice — throughout the pandemic. She also recommended using mouthwash to “decrease any viral loads” that might be accumulating.

“If this virus is following the pattern that all viruses follow, maybe we don’t even need a vaccine,” Laffay said at a private event hosted by Ohio Stands Up, which has filed a number of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging COVID-19 response measures.

Her worldview on COVID-19 appears in the minutes of some of the Huron City School Board meetings she attended before winning election. For instance, in November 2020, Laffay said there’s “too much focus on fear and case counts rather than on actual illness numbers” and noted that social distancing is a “suggestion and not a requirement.”

In July 2021, she expressed concerns to the board about how the media is focused on the delta variant, which was the dominant strain of the coronavirus at the time, and said schools should re-open without any mask requirement.

Speaking to Roten, Laffay identified herself as a member of “America’s Frontline Doctors,” a network of health care providers who claim vaccines are unsafe and ineffective who have made millions selling consultations and alternative medications like ivermectin, which many pharmacies have refused to dispense. The network was founded by Dr. Simone Gold, who awaits trial on charges related to her allegedly joining an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Laffay runs a clinic called “Elite Wellness Group.” Its website lists services including “facial LED light therapy” ($95 per 30-minute session); “emotional freedom technique” ($115 per one-hour session); and “infrared sauna” ($48 per 30-minute session).

Medical boards have come under increasing pressure to crack down on physicians they license who spread lies about purported dangers of vaccination, given the overwhelming evidence in support of vaccines and the damage done when enough people come to believe what the so-called “disinformation doctors” say.

Ohio physician Dr. Sherri Tenpenny became a national face of this push in June when she told lawmakers that vaccines “magnetize” recipients and “interface” with cell towers. The Ohio State Medical Board renewed Tenpenny’s license just a few months later.

“During this ongoing public health emergency that has claimed more than 5 million lives globally, a small minority of physicians have exploited the credibility that comes with their medical licenses to disseminate disinformation to the public,” reads a report from the de Beaumont Foundation, which criticized medical boards for failing to rein in the doctors in question. “Their lies, distortions, and baseless conspiracy theories have caused unnecessary suffering and death that are prolonging the pandemic.”

Speaking to Roten, Laffay claimed she had to be careful what she said about vaccines because she got a letter from her medical board warning that she could lose her license if she speaks ill of them on air. (She went on in the interview to cite an erroneous claim from an AFD lawsuit alleging that 45,000 people have died from COVID-19 vaccines.)

State medical board spokeswoman Jerica Stewart declined to answer specifics about Laffay or any correspondence with her. She said the board has not formally disciplined Laffay or any Ohio physicians for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. However, Stewart said the board has the legal power to punish doctors who make “false, fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading statement[s] in relation to the practice of medicine and surgery.”

Laffay’s questionable claims aren’t limited to COVID-19 either. As evidence for why agencies like the CDC or FDA aren’t to be trusted, Laffay alleged the agencies have done nothing about aborted fetal cells in junk food.

“There are hydrolite fetal cells in foods like Gatorade and Hot Pockets,” she said, airing a debunked claim that has dogged PepsiCo products including Gatorade. “And we don’t know about them. They’re not on the label. They’re used as a flavor additive. This is from aborted fetuses.”

The work history of Laffay, who did not respond to emails or calls to her private practice, is something of a mystery. In talk radio appearances she has been billed as an “emergency room physician” and she has told lawmakers she sees patients in the ER. She told a crowd in January 2021 that “I still work in a hospital setting.” Online medical directories list her as affiliated with Mercy Health Lorain Hospital and the Louis Stokes Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The Sandusky Register reported earlier this month that Laffay, in a promotional video for a fundraiser for an anti-vaccine group that has filed lawsuits accusing the governor of violating the Nuremberg Code via a vaccine lottery incentive for children, claimed 67 members of a hospital where she works are out with COVID-19.

However, the VA did not respond to comments about whether Laffay practices at its hospitals. A Mercy Health spokeswoman said Laffay “has been an affiliated emergency room physician but is no longer on the schedule.” She declined to say when Laffay’s employment ended.

“So here I am, this last year has taught me a lot,” Laffay said, closing out her speech at an Ohio Stands Up event. “I’m going to find my voice again and again for my country, and I’m going to do everything I can for our freedoms.”


Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

IN OTHER NEWS: Comedian James Adomian's impression of Mike Lindell imprisoning himself is getting rave reviews -- watch it here

Comedian James Adomian's impression of My Pillow CEO imprisoning himself is getting rave reviews www.youtube.com

Election lies get standing ovation at Jim Jordan Q&A

A crowd rose to its feet in applause at a forum last month when a man questioned GOP Congressman Jim Jordan about what he would do about the untrue assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
Jordan was speaking at a December event hosted by the Lima Community for Medical Freedom and took questions from the crowd afterward. A man who did not share his name and identified himself as a tradesman and a Jordan voter said he wanted to ask about the “elephant in the room” that he hears about everyday “that no politician wants to talk about.”

Jordan, in his speech, had said restrictive voting laws passed in Georgia last year and similar efforts in other states would alleviate the threat of election fraud in 2024. The man in the crowd said the issue couldn’t wait.

“Everybody I talk to is not satisfied with 2024,” he said. “Everyone I talk to thinks our election was stolen.”

The crowd started to clap and rise in applause toward Jordan, who watched with a smile. He nodded along as the man said he and others saw “a couple of weeks’ worth of evidence” of fraud in swing states, according to footage of the event posted on social media.

“My understanding: If someone gets caught robbing a bank, they don’t get to keep the money, and if somebody stole the election, they should not be able to keep it,” the man said to the congressman.

There’s no evidence of widespread election fraud. Rare, isolated incidents occur, but an Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in six battleground states disputed by Trump amounted to fewer than 475, far short of enough mass to tip an election. Numerous audits haven’t detected any widespread fraud, and Trump’s own attorney general and election security director have said there’s no reason to believe the election was stolen.

Regardless, recent polling shows Republicans share a lingering belief that the election was stolen. An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday found 71% of Republicans believe Trump won the election. A CBS News/YouGov poll, also released Sunday, found 12% of Americans believe Trump should “fight to be made president right now.”

When Jordan responded to the question, he neither confirmed nor denied the man’s claim of election fraud. Instead, he laid out a three-point outlook for 2024. For one, he said, “people are watching.” For two, he cited Georgia’s new law, specifically a provision requiring voters to show state-issued identification to cast an absentee ballot (current law allows them to do so with just a signature). Thirdly, Jordan said Republicans should file lawsuits “as soon as you see them start to play games” — a reference to states expanding use of drop boxes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He also called on Congress to “investigate” what happened in 2020.

“I haven’t said anything other than, ‘I want to check it out,’” he said. “Because there are lots of Americans, including Democrats, who have big concerns about what happened in the election, and that’s why I said, let’s figure it out.”

Jordan has repeatedly used his official powers and media profile to amplify Trump’s election lies. Hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection, he and 146 other GOP congressmen voted to overturn the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania — key battleground states. He spoke at a “stop the steal” rally in Pennsylvania after the election and issued official letters calling for investigations and alleging the existence of “irregularities and improprieties” and “ election errors and misconduct.”

Congressional investigators, meanwhile, recently released text messages Jordan sent to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows just before the Jan. 6 insurrection. At the hearing, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., read a part of a text message he said an unspecified lawmaker sent to Meadows on Jan. 5. Jordan’s office confirmed to CNN that he sent the text message to Meadows, forwarding on legal advice that had been sent to him.

“On January 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, should call out all electoral votes that he believes are unconstitutional as no electoral votes at all — in accordance with guidance from founding father Alexander Hamilton and judicial precedence,” the full text Jordan reportedly sent to Meadows, obtained by CNN, states.

“’No legislative act,’ wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 78, ‘contrary to the Constitution, can be valid.’ The court in Hubbard v. Lowe reinforced this truth: ‘That an unconstitutional statute is not a law at all is a proposition no longer open to discussion.’ 226 F. 135, 137 (SDNY 1915), appeal dismissed, 242 U.S. 654 (1916). Following this rationale, an unconstitutionally appointed elector, like an unconstitutionally enacted statute, is no elector at all.”

Jordan’s spokesman did not respond to emails regarding the CNN report or the standing ovation.

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Report calls on medical boards to go after COVID “disinformation doctors;” Ohio’s has not

In June, Sherri Tenpenny, a state-licensed doctor of osteopathic medicine and notorious COVID-19 disinformer, baselessly claimed in a televised, government meeting that COVID-19 vaccines “magnetize” recipients and “interface” with cell towers.

The comment wasn’t an aberration from Tenpenny, who has in the past described vaccines as a tool of “depopulation.” The Ohio State Medical Board, an agency tasked with overseeing discipline and complaints of state physicians, still renewed her license in September as part what it called an “automatic” process of handling renewals.

Her renewal points to a bigger problem at the intersection of politics, mass media and public health: a loud, super minority of physicians has found ways to monetize lies about COVID-19 and vaccines that prevent it, and state medical boards are ill equipped to handle the problem, according to a report released earlier this month by the de Beaumont Foundation.

“During this ongoing public health emergency that has claimed more than 5 million lives globally, a small minority of physicians have exploited the credibility that comes with their medical licenses to disseminate disinformation to the public,” the report states. “Their lies, distortions, and baseless conspiracy theories have caused unnecessary suffering and death that are prolonging the pandemic.”

Only about 21% of state medical boards have taken any disciplinary action against a licensee for disseminating false or misleading health information, according to a survey conducted by the Federation of State Medical Boards. About 2 in 3 boards said they’ve noticed an increase in complaints on the issue.

Ohio’s medical board’s stated mission is to “protect and enhance the health and safety of the public through effective medical regulation.” Spokeswoman Jerica Stewart said state law allows the board to discipline doctors for making a “false, fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading statement in relation to the practice of medicine and surgery.” However, there’s a high standard of proof to meet. Tenpenny’s license, Stewart said, was automatically renewed, part of an automated process to keep up with the 92,000 licensees in Ohio. Tenpenny did not respond to an email.

“Ohio law prohibits the Medical Board from sharing details about received complaints and investigations even if a licensee chooses to publicly comment on their interactions with the board,” she said. “I’d also like to reiterate, a recent renewal does not prevent the board from taking future disciplinary action and does not mean that there isn’t an open investigation.”

The de Beaumont report criticizes boards that have “rubber stamped renewals for doctors who are in clear violation of medical standards, which allows them to do more harm with no questions asked.”

Medical boards have structural problems stopping them from disciplining disinformers, per the report. Their work is shrouded in secrecy, the problem is somewhat new and fast-evolving, and investigations are time consuming.

Several physicians identified in the report have spread untruths throughout the pandemic about COVID-19 all while being “able to point to their medical license for credibility.” For instance, California physician Simone Gold said in a CNN interview that vaccines are “disease-causing.” Indiana physician Dan Stock, speaking at a school board meeting, attributed a COVID-19 outbreak to vaccines. North Carolina physician Rashid Buttar claimed on CNN that the vaccine has killed more people than COVID-19.

These claims fly in the face of real-world evidence showing vaccines are incredibly powerful protectors against serious health outcomes from COVID-19 like hospitalization or death. Likewise, researchers have found there’s no increase in mortality in vaccine recipients, and that recipients had lower rates of non-COVID-19 mortality after adjusting for age and other characteristics.

The de Beaumont Foundation, a public health advocacy group, commissioned polling on the issue from Morning Consult. Of 2,200 adult respondents, about 9 in 10 said physicians don’t have the right to “intentionally spread misinformation or false health information.” About 8 in 10 said they should be disciplined for doing so.


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