Ohio Sec. of State LaRose won’t comment on election-denying financier of constitutional effort

Secretary of State Frank LaRose said it’s important to make it a lot harder for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution because we need to keep powerful out-of-state special interests from meddling with the state’s foundational document.

But his office wouldn’t respond when asked if the state’s top elections official embraced or condemned the support of an Illinois billionaire who helped fund the Jan. 6, 2021 rally in Washington, D.C., and who has lavished millions on candidates who have falsely claimed that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

The Columbus Dispatch last week reported that ultraconservative donor Richard Uihlein donated more than $1 million to the Save Our Constitution PAC in support of the effort to, ironically, dramatically alter what it takes for voters to amend it.

Since 1912, Ohioans frustrated by government inaction could put a constitutional amendment on the ballot by gathering the large required number of voter signatures. Then, if the amendment got more than 50% of the vote, it became part of the Ohio Constitution.

LaRose and his GOP allies in Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature want to make signature gathering much harder by requiring a certain number of them come from each of the state’s 88 counties instead of the current 44. And they want to raise the percentage of the vote needed for success to 60% — effectively raising the bar by 20%.

LaRose has given shifting reasons why it’s necessary to lock down voter access to the state constitution.

In a November press conference, he said it was to keep out shadowy, out-of-state special interests, but didn’t point to any examples of that happening over the previous 110 years.

LaRose specifically denied that he wanted to block future abortion-rights or anti-gerrymandering amendments. But a few weeks later, the official he shared the stage with, Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, sent a letter to GOP colleagues contradicting LaRose. The point was to block such amendments, Stewart said.

Last month, LaRose said he wanted to restrict voter access to the state Constitution to block schemes like that of former Speaker Larry Householder to keep himself in power for another 16 years. The 2020 plot was exposed as part of an epic racketeering trial in which Householder was convicted in March.

In the scandal, Akron-based FirstEnergy paid more than $60 million for a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout. But LaRose wouldn’t answer last month when asked if he ever spoke out against the bailout before the FBI started arresting people. He also wouldn’t discuss testimony during the trial that LaRose was in communication with some of the central players as they plotted.

For example, in a text message displayed at the trial, former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones said that LaRose gave him “private” information about a 2019 effort to repeal the bailout. The secretary of state’s office refused again this week to answer questions about that as well.

As LaRose declines to own or disown Uihlein, it might echo other fences the secretary of state has tried to straddle.

Last year, a Washington, D.C. news organization accurately reported on a LaRose press release saying voter fraud was vanishingly rare in Ohio’s 2020 election. But LaRose attacked the story, tweeting, “President Trump is right to say voter fraud is a serious problem.

At the time, LaRose’s office wouldn’t answer questions about Trump’s constant lies about the outcome of the 2020 election, the pressure he put on Georgia election officials to overturn it, or how the former president discussed seizing voting machines.

Now the state’s top voting official is refusing to discuss an apparent ally in his fight to restrict access to the state constitution who has also spent millions to support Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

And the ad currently being funded by Uihlein, the Illinois billionaire, has some things in common with some of the ads financed by FirstEnergy as part of the Householder scandal. Both are ominous, for example, and both could be seen as turning reality upside down.

In Householder’s case, FirstEnergy ran tens of millions through 501(c)(4) “dark money” organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors. Even so, he used some of that money to attack a primary challenger, Kevin Black, for using dark money on a far smaller scale, calling it “dirty money, dirty politics.

Uihlein helped fund the rally that preceded the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and spent millions more supporting candidates who lie about the outcome of a presidential election — an attack on the most basic democratic institution. Yet the political commercial the Illioisian is financing says Ohioans who want to keep an 111-year-old system in place are attempting “a radical liberal takeover.”

The ads are targeting House Republicans who are reluctant to call an August election to consider whether to make it harder for voters to amend the Ohio Constitution. One is aimed at Speaker Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill.

“The clock is ticking,” it says. “We have less than a week to save Ohio’s Constitution from a radical liberal takeover. And Speaker Jason Stephens has the power to stop them. Conservatives across Ohio are demanding action. It’s time for Speaker Jason Stephens to stop the liberal takeover of Ohio and vote with conservatives. Call and demand Speaker Stephens votes quickly to save Ohio’s Constitution before it’s too late.”

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.

Prosecutors hammer 'badly damaged' former Ohio House speaker in state's notorious corruption trial

CINCINNATI — From recordings of threats against other lawmakers’ kids, to undisclosed gifts, to nearly $2 million in undisclosed debts, federal prosecutors on Thursday confronted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder with facts that appeared to refute things he said about himself under oath a day earlier.

The cross examination prompted some observers to say Householder badly damaged his defense against federal racketeering charges by using the risky tactic of testifying in his own defense. It marked the end of the evidentiary phase of the trial. Closing arguments will begin Tuesday.

Householder and former Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are accused in a scheme to use $61 million in funds mostly from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder speaker and then to pass and protect a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily went to prop up a subsidiary’s failing nuclear plants.

Over more than five weeks of testimony, prosecutors have put on evidence they say proves Householder passed the bailout in return for massive 501(c)(4) “dark money” contributions and for more than $500,000 in personal benefits. Perhaps as a sign that they didn’t believe things were going well, Householder and his defense team took the controversial step of putting him on the witness stand on Wednesday.

Defense attorneys are usually reluctant to put their clients on the stand because prosecutors can use cross examination to catch them in lies. That seemed to be Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter’s goal as she cross-examined Householder on Thursday.


Glatfelter played secret recordings of conversations that jarringly contradicted Householder’s claims that as speaker, he wanted to be a peacemaker. Under its earlier leadership, Householder said, the House Republican Caucus was too “divisive.”

“I didn’t want enemies. I wanted friends,” Householder said Wednesday, trying to refute claims that he was an autocratic leader who demanded unstinting loyalty from lawmakers and contributors.

Glatfelter played a wiretap recording of a conversation between Householder and Neil Clark, a lobbyist who was charged in the conspiracy and later died by suicide.

“We like war and you know that Neil,” Householder told Clark. Then referring to Republican Reps. Dave Greenspan and Scott Lipps, whom Householder considered insufficiently supportive, he said, “If you f**k with me, I’ll f**k with your kids.”

The former speaker had earlier denied being involved in using dark, or “C4” money to make attack ads, but when Clark asked “You’re talking about C4 money?” Householder responded, “Yeah.”

When Glatfelter asked Householder if he punished contributors and lawmakers who supported his foes instead of him, Householder said, “I can’t think of any consequences” he had meted out to non-supporters.

Then Glatfelter played a recording between Householder and Clark in which they discussed what to do about non-supporters.

“We can f**k them over later,” Householder said.

In the dark about dark money

The prosecutor also didn’t buy Householder’s claim of general ignorance about the operations of Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) dark money group into which FirstEnergy pumped scores of millions to pass and protect the bailout legislation. The entity was created and controlled by Jeffrey Longstreth, Householder’s underling, a few weeks after Householder flew with FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling to Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration aboard FirstEnergy’s corporate jet.

Householder claimed that he was so new to the dark money game that Longstreth had to explain how such groups worked.

And, as he did through much of the cross examination, Householder answered questions repetitively and seemingly grudgingly. When asked by Glatfelter what the former speaker thought the purpose of Generation Now was, Householder responded, “To educate the public on important issues and support candidates who support those issues.”

Records and testimony from Longstreth — who pleaded guilty in the case — indicated that dark money from Generation Now was used to make and run ferocious attack ads against opponents of “Team Householder.” Then it was used to claim without evidence that an effort to repeal the bailout was really a Chinese effort to take over the Ohio energy grid.

Because such groups don’t have to disclose their contributors, FirstEnergy was able to keep its fingerprints off its involvement in passing and protecting legislation of such interest to the company.

Prosecutors also played recordings and showed written messages indicating that Householder was involved in planning Generation Now-funded messages. But asked by Glatfelter several times on Thursday what he believed the dark money group actually did, Householder tried not to move far from his initial answer.

The group was for “educating the public on issues that are important to Ohio and me and supporting candidates who support those issues,” he said.

Champaign travel for a “country Republican”

The former speaker and the prosecutor also clashed over Householder’s flight to the Trump inaugural. Householder and his son were invited to do so by Cleveland businessman Tony George.

Glatfelter asked what George’s relationship with FirstEnergy was. Householder said George “knew Chuck” — referring to FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones.

Incredulous, Glatfelter said, “There’s a difference between knowing somebody and having access to his company jet, right?”

Householder said that the only reason Dowling, the FirstEnergy vice president, flew with the group is because George said someone from the company had to be on the flight. The implication, apparently, was that the trip wasn’t part of the plan for a FirstEnergy bailout.

Householder said he agreed to take the flight to save time. But traveling by private jet might not fit with his explanation earlier in the day of the difference between him and Borges.

“He’s a country club Republican and I’m more of a country Republican,” Householder said.

The former speaker also claimed that he didn’t intend to fly free.

“From day 1, I was going to pay for that flight,” he said.

More than two months later, Householder paid FirstEnergy $2,647. He said he paid then because that’s how long it took for FirstEnergy to send him a bill — not because the Dayton Daily News had written a story about the flight and the questionable appearance that it made.

That Householder would take a private jet without knowing what the cost would be is difficult to square with another statement he made about himself when he testified a day earlier.

“Anybody who’s been around me knows I’m cheap,” Householder said. “I drive a 2001 GMC Sonoma and I don’t like to spend money.”

Glatfelter punched other holes in Householder’s attempts Wednesday to distance himself from FirstEnergy executives on the trip to the Trump inaugural. She showed that George reserved rooms at the same hotel for Householder and CEO Jones within a minute of each other and paid the same amount for both — $1,500.

Householder said he believed the Ohio Republican Party paid for his room.

Personal payments, questionable sources

Observers have said that one of the most damning kinds of evidence against Householder is that Longstreth had paid more than $500,000 to settle a lawsuit against the speaker, repair a house he owned in Florida, and to retire credit card debt. Longstreth said he had papers drawn up to formalize the payments as loans, but Householder never would sign them.

Householder said his plan was to pay Longstreth when the Florida house was sold. When it finally did sell — for nearly $700,000 — Householder said he couldn’t pay Longstreth because both had been arrested in July 2020 and he believed any payments to a co-defendant could be used against him. The former speaker said he planned to pay Longstreth when the case is over.

Householder also showed a curious lack of interest in the sources of Longstreth’s money.

Longstreth testified that he received millions in FirstEnergy money through Generation Now and into a separate account that he used to pay Householder’s debts, hire contractors, pay himself, and the like.

Glatfelter asked Householder where Longstreth got the money to pay Householder’s debts and to run the sweeping political operation.

“His business wasn’t my business,” Householder said of the man he hired to recruit candidates, get them elected, and then get them to vote to make him speaker.

Lack of disclosure

Glatfelter also took Householder to task for not disclosing debts and gifts in compliance with state ethics laws.

He didn’t disclose a $1.89 million judgment against him over a failed Alabama coal mine. Nor did he disclose 2016 World Series tickets that were given him at a discount from the going rate of $2,500 apiece, Glatfelter said. And he failed to report the $1,500 hotel room George got him for Trump’s inauguration.

Householder testified that his attorney filed the disclosures and that he had only “glanced over” them.

Glatfelter pointed him to the portion of the disclosures in which the filer says he or she knows the contents of the disclosure and has to swear it’s accurate — a legally binding attestation similar to the one Householder made before testifying. She asked Householder if the documents bore his electronic signature.

“I don’t even know what an electronic signature is,” he replied.

Pressed, Householder responded with several versions of, “I relied on the advice of my attorney.”

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.

'Hazy memory': Republican distances himself from 'Team Householder' at Ohio corruption trial

CINCINNATI — Former state Rep. Nino Vitale on Tuesday testified that he didn’t have much of a memory for — nor was he much interested in — raising money or campaigning for office. At several points, the Republican from Urbana even said he didn’t remember what year he was first elected to the legislature (it was 2014.)

But on cross examination, federal prosecutors showed him records and written communications indicating that Vitale was regarded as an enthusiastic member of “Team Householder” who, as part of the team, received thousands in campaign funds and other assistance that originated with Akron-based FirstEnergy.

As former Speaker Larry Householder’s appointee to chair the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Vitale in 2019 helped to pass a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily benefited FirstEnergy. When they announced arrests in the summer of 2020, federal prosecutors said the bailout was at the center of what was likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scandal in Ohio history.

Vitale was called by Householder’s lawyers in the trial, which started on Jan. 23. Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are charged with racketeering in an alleged scheme to use $61 million in utility money to elect friendly lawmakers who would make Householder speaker and then bail out FirstEnergy’s failing nuclear and coal plants.

Vitale has long been known for controversial political gestures — including refusing to wear a mask at the height of the coronavirus pandemic because human faces are “the likeness of God.

But on Tuesday, Vitale portrayed himself as a reluctant politician. In a possible nod to how uncompetitive his district was, the former lawmaker said he didn’t have to do much to get reelected.

“The whole marketing side of things wasn’t big on my radar because my district elected me overwhelmingly and frequently,” Vitale said.

Householder’s attorneys seemed to call Vitale and other Householder supporters in the House to testify so they could say they believed the bailout law was good public policy. But U.S. District Judge Timothy Black limited such testimony, saying the proceeding wasn’t a referendum on the merits of House Bill 6.

Vitale also said he never felt pressured to support Householder for speaker or to support the bailout.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter then posed a series of questions that seemed to be intended to show that Householder made Vitale chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee not because Vitale had any particular qualifications, but because he was an enthusiastic member of Team Householder who would do the speaker’s bidding.

Vitale tried to refute that characterization.

When Painter tried to get him to agree that he had little in his background to school him in large-scale electricity generation or the management of the state’s natural resources, Vitale wouldn’t.

“I know quite a lot about those topics, actually,” he testified.

Vitale said he works for his wife’s family’s company, which makes parts for truck brakes. It has an electricity substation and it sits on 30 acres, and those factors gave him expertise on the power grid and the environment, Vitale said.

When Painter proposed that Vitale had no academic credentials that would make him expert in those areas, Vitale disagreed again, saying his business degree provided him with such knowledge.

“In a business degree, part of what you study is energy inputs to a business,” Vitale said.

The former lawmaker also claimed that he wasn’t very familiar with FirstEnergy and had to be convinced to support the bailout bill. Then Painter displayed a text message from FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling to CEO Chuck Jones on Feb. 17, 2019 — before the bill was introduced. Earlier testimony showed that the executives believed the bailout was critical to their company, and Jones had asked Dowling who was going to chair the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Nino Vitale from Springfield will chair,” Dowling responded. “Good friend and bigtime (Householder) supporter.”

Confronted with the message, Vitale said he’d only met Dowling a few times.

Vitale also disputed that it was Householder who first broached the idea of Vitale being chairman.

“I asked him,” Vitale said.

Then Painter played a voicemail message that Vitale left for Householder in January 2019, just after Householder had been made speaker. In it, Vitale said he had talked the matter over with his family.

“I’m in if that’s what you want me to do,” Vitale said.

As Painter tried to move on to another question, Vitale insisted that chairing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was originally his idea.

And to refute Vitale’s claims that he was half-hearted about fundraising and political marketing, Painter displayed an October 4, 2017 text message Vitale sent to Jeffrey Longstreth, Householder’s right-hand man in making him speaker and then passing the bailout. It certainly seemed to link FirstEnergy’s policy agenda to Vitale’s desire for corporate contributions.

FirstEnergy lobbyist “Ty Pine wants to meet with me on a legislative matter and I want to meet with him on a contribution matter,” Vitale said in his message.

After more than a month, testimony in the trial is entering the homestretch. Householder’s final witnesses — including Householder himself — are expected to testify Wednesday and Thursday. Then it will be Borges’ turn to call any witnesses he may have.

After that, the prosecution and the defense teams will make closing statements, Judge Black will instruct the jury and then it will deliberate.





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.

Revealed: Former Ohio GOP chair paid man $15K while asking him to spy

CINCINNATI — In 2019, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges repeatedly insisted that he wasn’t paying a man to spy on the effort to repeal a corrupt utility bailout, but recordings played in court Monday show that Borges paid the man $15,000 while pressing him for inside information on the repeal campaign.

The federal racketeering trial of Borges and former House Speaker Larry Householder entered its fifth week with testimony from Tyler Fehrman, who was the last prosecution witness. Prosecutors rested their case Monday and U.S. District Judge Timothy Black denied defense motions to acquit Borges and Householder.

Borges and Householder are accused of facilitating a scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy paid $61 million to make Householder speaker. After he won the post, Householder then passed and worked to protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout. Borges worked as a lobbyist who supported the bailout effort.

He and Fehrman had worked together in the past, but they found themselves on ostensibly opposite sides of the bailout law, House Bill 6.

After Gov. Mike DeWine signed the law in July 2019, Fehrman was a manager for a company hired to gather signatures to put a repeal on the ballot. Meanwhile, Borges was assigned to use his influence with Attorney General Dave Yost and other elected officials to try to delay the petition campaign or even kill it altogether.

In secretly recorded conversations, both men acknowledged that Ohio voters hated the bailout law and agreed that if a repeal made it onto the ballot, HB 6 would surely go down in flames.

“If it makes the ballot, we’re dead,” Borges said in one conversation.

“People hate the bill,” Fehrman replied.

In other recordings, Borges repeatedly pressed Fehrman about how many people were collecting signatures for the company he was working for, Advanced Micro Targeting. Borges also wanted to know where the circulators were working and how many signatures they had collected.

Earlier in the trial, company CEO Michael Roberson testified that such information would be extremely valuable to the effort to protect the bailout.

In other testimony, witnesses described a harried 54-day effort to gather 260,000 valid signatures while FirstEnergy provided tens of millions in dark money to finance misleading, xenophobic ads meant to undermine the repeal effort. The money also paid for “blockers” — people who harassed and even assaulted petition circulators, Fehrman and Roberson testified.

Fehrman said that during a meeting on Sept. 2, 2019, Borges quizzed him on the state of his finances, asking if he owed money on his car, and whether he had credit card debt. In other testimony, Fehrman said he was indebted because of a divorce and that Borges knew about that.

But Fehrman said it bothered him that Borges would bring up his finances as the two were working on opposite sides of the repeal campaign.

He left the meeting “feeling very upset, shaken,” Fehrman said. “I’ve never been in a situation in my career where I was asked to do something absolutely wrong.”

Fehrman said that he came to believe that Borges was dangling money in exchange for secret information about the repeal effort and he contacted federal officials. Then the FBI recorded a series of phone calls and meetings between Fehrman and Borges before the petition campaign failed in late October of 2019.

In them, Borges repeatedly pressed for information about the petition campaign, saying things like:

“I would love to know what the statewide number (of signatures) is.”“We hear you guys are bringing in a bunch of people from out of state. Is that true?”“We were told (circulators so far had) 80,000 (signatures) today. Is that true?”“We want to know locations (where circulators are) in advance. We’re going to follow people around.”

In the midst of those conversations, Fehrman asked Borges for payment, saying in a text message, “Did you bring what we discussed yesterday?”

To which Borges replied, “We need to take a different approach. I want to hire you for a different project.”

Borges ended up giving Fehrman a check for $15,000, which Fehrman deposited in his bank account so that Borges could see that it cleared the bank. Fehrman then wrote a check for $15,000 to the U.S. Marshals Service, he testified Monday.

When Fehrman told Borges he was worried that a journalist or a lawyer might ask him about his arrangement with Borges, Borges told him to say the money Fehrman received was unrelated to the information he was providing.

“Just say no, because you weren’t,” according to a recording played Monday. “That’s not the understanding we came to.”

He reiterated, “We specifically said there’s no connection between what’s going on with (a dark money group FirstEnergy paid into and Householder controlled) and what’s going on here.”

Some other Borges statements played in court Monday might also be problematic for him — especially in light of something Judge Black said as he denied the defendants’ motions to direct a verdict acquitting their clients. Black said prosecutors had put on “evidence of concealment.”

Several of Borges’ statements to Fehrman might fit in that category:

“No matter what, don’t ever tell anyone about our conversation earlier.”If news of Borges’ dealings with Fehrman became public “it will be bad for us and worse for you.”“You’re not trying to set me up, are you?”“I’m going to blow your house up.”

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 corruption trial witness reveals former GOP speaker never signed key legal documents

CINCINNATI — In Washington, D.C., during Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, then-Ohio Rep. Larry Householder had a dinner meeting with the top executives with Akron-based FirstEnergy. The executives stressed their likely need for a state bailout — and their need for a way to make unlimited, untraceable contributions to Householder’s bid for speaker, Householder’s top lieutenant testified Wednesday.

By late 2019, scores of millions in FirstEnergy dollars had passed through the 501(c)(4) “dark money” account that had been set up at the executives’ request. Householder had won the speaker’s gavel. And the state had passed a bailout that mostly benefited a FirstEnergy subsidiary.

In addition, Householder had received more than $500,000 for personal expenses that had originated with the utility. The speaker agreed to call them “loans,” but he never quite got around to signing legal documents that were prepared — much less to paying back any of the money, the witness, Jeffrey Longstreth, testified Wednesday.

If true, it and other events described Wednesday illustrate widespread ratepayer-financed malfeasance that threatened to make Householder speaker in alliance with Ohio utilities almost indefinitely.

Four weeks into the blockbuster corruption trial, Longstreth’s testimony could prove crucial. Because he set up the dark money group and handled much of Householder’s political business, Longstreth is likely to have had one of the best views into whether the former speaker enriched himself in exchange for championing the bailout.

Showing that Householder personally enriched himself as he rammed through an unpopular corporate bailout could go a long way to convincing the jury that the former speaker participated in an illegal conspiracy.

He and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are being tried on charges of racketeering. Federal prosecutors have said the $61 million in utility money that was used to pass the billion-dollar bailout is likely the largest bribery and money laundering scandal in Ohio history.

Longstreth, who functioned as Householder’s political strategist and general fixer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for a favorable sentencing recommendation. On Wednesday, he explained to jurors that by the time of the dinner meeting during Trump’s inauguration, it was clear to him that Householder was well familiar with then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and what Jones wanted for his company.

Meetings with FirstEnergy executives

In late 2016, as Householder captured a House seat that he held in the early 2000s, FirstEnergy was drowning in debt from its money-losing nuclear and coal plants. The company was laying the groundwork to send the subsidiary that owned the plants into bankruptcy, and executives calculated that state or federal subsidies would make it attractive to buyers.

In December 2016, the newly elected Householder hired Longstreth to spearhead his plan to elect enough sympathetic Republicans in 2018 that they would make Householder speaker at the start of 2019.

A month later, Householder and Longstreth were in D.C. for Trump’s inaugural — and to meet with Jones and FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling. At one steakhouse dinner, Longstreth was seated at the end of a long table with Dowling, and Jones and Householder were seated at the other.

Dowling “said they were going to get going, get your organization set up,” Longstreth testified, explaining that he understood “organization” to mean a limited liability corporation or a dark money group that could receive FirstEnergy money. “He said [the money] needed to be undisclosed and unlimited contributions.”

The next night, the dinner at another D.C. steakhouse was more intimate, with just Householder, Jones, Dowling, Longstreth and maybe one other in attendance. Jones, the FirstEnergy CEO, explained the company’s financial woes and that they were working on a federal solution to them.

“They said, ‘If not, we’re going to need something on the state level,'” Longstreth quoted Jones as saying.

He added that Householder mostly sat quietly through that part of the discussion because he “already knew everything that was being said, it seemed to me.”

Longstreth said he didn’t know about all of Householder’s previous dealings with Jones, but said the men were well enough acquainted that they attended a World Series game together in Cleveland the previous October.

The political strategist testified that it was clear to him that FirstEnergy’s enormous contributions were expressly in exchange for a bailout.

“I knew their donations were [predicated] on the expectation that something like House Bill 6 would happen,” Longstreth said.

Money for Householder

Householder didn’t just get money from FirstEnergy to advance his political ambitions, Longstreth said.

In spring of 2017, Householder called Longstreth into his office to complain of financial problems. He was head of a group of investors in an Alabama coal mine that had defaulted on a loan, he was having problems with his Perry County farm and he had a house in Florida that was badly in need of repair.

Longstreth said Householder told him that he needed to solve some of those problems or he’d be forced to drop his bid for speaker. And, he said, because Householder was his only client, that would be a big problem for Longstreth, too.

Using money out of an account that was funded by the dark money group that FirstEnergy paid into, Longstreth said he paid lawyers, settled the Alabama lawsuit and financed the repair of Householder’s Naples, Fla., home.

Longstreth had a loan agreement drawn up, but Householder never signed the papers, he said.

“We had multiple discussions, but it was a kick-the-can-down-the-road type of scenario,” Longstreth said.

In late 2019 when the issue came up, Householder “asked me in the course of our conversation, ‘Are you whole?'” Longstreth said, explaining that he interpreted the question to mean that Householder wanted to know if somebody other than Longstreth had ultimately paid Householder’s debts.

“It was one of those hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck situations,” Longstreth said, adding they both knew the arrangement the speaker was suggesting was illegal.

At another meeting at the Buckeye Lake AMVETS post, Householder requested help with credit card bills, Longstreth said. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors displayed bank records showing that the debt was about $20,000.

Longstreth said he stressed to Householder that they needed to stay on the right side of the law.

“I said it had to be something we can do legally because you can’t get something for nothing,” Longstreth said.

Testimony on widespread corruption

Wednesday’s testimony about Householder’s loans was against a backdrop of widespread corruption that threatened to become endemic.

Before Longstreth took the stand, Pat Tully testified that within weeks he moved from a senior position at the state’s utility regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, to being a senior advisor to the House Republican Caucus. In early 2019, Tully said, Householder met with him, Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, and Sam Randazzo, Gov. Mike DeWine’s nominee to chair the PUCO — and who around that time received a $4.3 million payment from FirstEnergy.

Tully described how he worked with Randazzo to help draft the utility bailout, House Bill 6, and to reconcile it with draft legislation submitted by FirstEnergy. He wasn’t asked about the propriety of a current and very recent regulator writing a law in which one of the state’s largest utilities had such an obvious interest.

In Longstreth’s testimony, he said that after HB 6 passed in 2020, he and Householder mounted an effort that could make him speaker for the foreseeable future in a kind of permanent alliance with Ohio’s big utilities.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors played recordings of Householder ally Neil Clark saying that thanks to dark money, utilities like FirstEnergy could contribute vast sums to politicians and keep their origin secret. In that way, Clark said, supposedly regulated utilities could exercise huge influence behind the scenes.

Ohio law currently limits lawmakers to eight years in either house, but they’re free to run for the other chamber after that — and can do so as long as they like. So Householder’s speakership would at least have been interrupted in 2024.

But Longstreth found that the idea of passing a law limiting lifetime service to 16 years polled well. And it had a huge silver lining for Householder — it would reset the clock so the speaker was free to stay in the House and be its leader for the next 16 years if he could keep getting the votes.

Longstreth estimated that it would cost $15 million to $20 million to buy ads selling the idea to voters. For the money, Householder and Longstreth decided to turn to utilities FirstEnergy and AEP, both of which reaped millions from the bailout. Their interest in keeping Householder in the speaker’s chair was clear, Longstreth said.

“It kind of went without saying that they would support anything that was good for the speaker because anything that was good for the speaker was good for them,” Longstreth said.

After meetings with top executives with both companies in February 2020, Householder secured pledges of support from each, Longstreth said. Then reality intervened.

“COVID started in March and then we were arrested in July,” Longstreth 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.

Stalking and assault alleged in repeal fight over corrupt utility bailout in Ohio

CINCINNATI — Tens of millions didn’t just go to pay for a spate of nasty, xenophobic ads to stop a repeal of a corrupt utility bailout in 2019. Some of that money also paid people to stalk, harass and even assault workers who were gathering signatures to get the repeal onto the ballot, the head of the company that was gathering them testified on Tuesday.

The testimony opened the fourth week of the trial in which former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former state Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are accused of racketeering. They and others allegedly conspired to use $61 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder Speaker in 2019 and then pass and protect House Bill 6 — a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily benefited nuclear and coal plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions.

In earlier days of testimony, federal prosecutors put on witnesses and played recordings indicating that Householder and his allies worked with current and former regulators to draft HB 6. Jurors also heard that Householder personally received more than $500,000 to pay credit card bills, finance home repairs and to settle a lawsuit, according to prosecutors.

Two of the prosecution witnesses called on Tuesday seemed to be intended to show the jury how grubby was the politics behind HB 6, regardless of its legality.

The Householder leadership team and HB 6 vote

One witness — a Republican — said that the bailout was a bad law that her constituents didn’t support and neither could she, in good conscience. Former State Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, testified that despite the fact she didn’t support Householder for speaker, he surprised her by making her part of his leadership team.

As the 2019 legislative session got underway, passage of HB 6 became the primary focus of the House even though a state budget was also being developed, Lanese said.

“This was sort of the only thing that was going on at the time,” Lanese said.

But as she examined the bailout bill, the lawmaker couldn’t get answers to some questions and what she did know about it, she didn’t like.

“To me, it was a very anti-free-market measure,” Lanese testified. “It seemed very unfair to my constituents and the rest of the state to have to pay this bailout.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a big bailout of a big energy company didn’t seem to be a political winner.

Lanese described how Householder and his allies had a hard time finding the votes to pass it through the House. In a meeting with Householder and the rest of the leadership team in the speaker’s office, Lanese said HB 6 was one vote shy of passage and she was the only “no” vote in the room.

“He turned to me and said, ‘Laura, I really need your vote,'” Lanese said, adding that she replied, “‘I’m sorry Mr. Speaker, I just can’t do it.'”

Describing the pressure, the lawmaker said she “lost sleep for months” over the vote and that as she mounted her reelection bid in 2020, funds dried up.

On cross examination, however, Householder attorney Robert Glickman pointed out that if Householder retaliated against Lanese, he didn’t do it very thoroughly. She kept her leadership post and most of her committee memberships despite her “no” vote on HB 6.

Once the General Assembly passed the law in July 2019 — and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it the same day — a fight to repeal it began almost immediately.

The repeal effort and harassment campaign against it

FirstEnergy and its subsidiary plowed tens of millions of dollars into a 501(c)(4) dark money group controlled by Householder to block the repeal. What followed were ugly, ubiquitous mailers and commercials claiming the effort to repeal HB 6 was really an attempt by the Chinese government to take over the Ohio energy grid. Those responsible for the ads didn’t produce any evidence to support their claims.

The ads have aged especially badly in light of spiking hate crimes against Asians during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the CEO of the firm hired to gather signatures to get a repeal on the ballot said the grubbiness extended beyond the xenophobic ads.

Michael Roberson of Advanced Micro Targeting said that the campaign to thwart the recall hired people to harass those who were circulating petitions and even voters considering signing them.

“I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been in politics most of my adult life,” Roberson, the 2018 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, testified. “It was like a war zone out there. Our employees were stalked. They were harassed. They were intimidated. Some of them were assaulted. It was quite something.”

That wasn’t the only obstacle the repeal effort faced.

As part of earlier testimony, prosecutors showed a June 2019 text message from Borges in which Borges claimed to have spoken to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Yost said he thought HB 6 was a bad law, but he didn’t plan to publicly oppose it because of Borges’ friendship and because FirstEnergy had supported Yost’s campaigns, Borges said.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Official photo.

Yost’s office said he wouldn’t comment on the claim because the trial is ongoing. But he did take a step that slowed the petition-gathering effort in the face of a tight deadline.

Under Ohio law, leaders of the attempted repeal had 90 days after the law’s enrollment to gather at least as many valid signatures as 6% of the number who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election — about 265,000 in 2019. But first, they had to submit a summary of the ballot language along with 1,000 valid signatures for review by the attorney general and the Ballot Board.

Yost rejected the first summary that was submitted and by the time a second was approved — along with another batch of 1,000 signatures — the repeal team had only 54 days left of the original 90 to submit more than a quarter-million valid signatures.

“It was a significant impediment,” Roberson testified.

Then, when petition circulators fanned out to do the work, they were followed by trackers bent on disrupting them, Roberson said.

“They would create disturbances. Yelling, screaming at petitioners, voters. Telling them not to sign,” Roberson said. “Productivity goes down when your petitioners are being harassed, when voters are being harassed.”

Center, former Ohio Republican Party chair, and statehouse lobbyist, Matt Borges with his attorneys outside of the federal courthouse. Photo courtesy of WEWS.

Borges, Householder’s co-defendant, is accused of paying a $15,000 bribe to a manager on Roberson’s team in exchange for inside information about the effort to gather signatures to get a repeal on the ballot.

In earlier testimony the manager, Tyler Fehrman, was said to have provided Borges with information such as how many signatures had been gathered and where petitioners were going next. Roberson said such information would give such a big advantage to opponents that “canvassers don’t even know that.”

At the same time, money was pouring through Householder’s dark-money group and into offers to hire people away from Roberson. They could either switch sides, or take $2,500 and a plane ticket to anywhere else in the continental United States.

“We lost employees at a rate we’ve never lost employees on a project,” he said.

In the end, Roberson said, his firm was unable to gather enough signatures in the abbreviated time it had. It was the company’s first failure after qualifying “hundreds” of ballot measures across the country, he said.

Dark money politics

Tuesday’s testimony followed testimony on Thursday that seemed calculated to get the jury to see Householder and his tactics in a bad light.

Beth Ellis, a member of a Clinton County farm family, described her 2018 run in the Republican Primary for state representative. A member of local boards who operates a charity for veterans with PTSD, Ellis said she was interested in running so she could advocate in Columbus for farmers and her district.

Ellis said she didn’t know Householder or that her opponent, Shane Wilkin, was a member of “Team Householder.” Then the robocalls and radio ads started, calling her a “Columbus insider,” and other things that “didn’t reflect me at all.”

One day, her son got off the school bus and found a direct-mail piece attacking her. It said it was paid for by Growth and Opportunity PAC, one of several groups funded by dark money groups that were primarily financed by FirstEnergy. But because dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors, Ellis couldn’t unpack that.

“I didn’t know who it was from,” she said. “It was an organization I didn’t recognize. I tried to Google it and I couldn’t find anything about it.”

Ellis said she stuck to positive ads and messages about what she wanted to do if elected to the General Assembly. But it left a bad taste to have her reputation attacked in front of her neighbors by forces she couldn’t identify.

“Honestly, I want to forget about the whole thing,” she 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 corruption trial: GOP chair paid to spy on bailout repeal effort

CINCINNATI — Former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges paid $15,000 off the books in 2019, a witness testified Tuesday. It was in an attempt to gather inside information about the campaign to repeal a $1.3 billion utility subsidy that had just been passed by the legislature, a Borges associate said.

In addition, the chairman of the company that benefited most from the subsidy in an email referred to the scheme as a “black op” and said he was prepared “to do whatever it takes” to defeat the repeal effort, the witness, Juan Cespedes, said. Coincidentally, the chairman, John Kiani, started his career at Enron, a Houston Energy company that collapsed under a wave of unmet contracts and accounting scandals in 2001.

It was the 11th day in the federal court trial of Borges and former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford. Borges is accused of assisting Householder and others in a scheme to use $61 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder speaker and pass the massive bailout.

The bulk of the bailout was intended to benefit money-losing nuclear and coal plants owned by FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions. It was going through bankruptcy proceedings and executives with the parent company and the subsidiary desperately wanted the bailout to complete the bankruptcy, spin off FirstEnergy Solutions and possibly sell the nuclear plants.

Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bailout the same day it passed in 2019, but a repeal effort started amid reports that it was “the worst energy bill of the 21st century.” Not only did it prop up 70-year-old coal plants under the guise of being a “Clean Air Program,” it also gutted the state’s renewable energy standards.

Borges was part of a team of lobbyists who worked to pass and protect the bailout, House Bill 6. And, because of his long experience in Ohio politics, he was asked to make use of some of his relationships in the effort, Cespedes, another member of the team, testified.

Cespedes was also charged with racketeering, but he pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

The off-the-books payment

One of the primary acts Borges is charged with has to do with a $15,000 payment he made during the repeal effort to Tyler Fehrman, who was helping manage the campaign to gather enough valid signatures to get the repeal on the ballot.

Inside information was valuable to the pro-H.B. 6 team because it enabled them to gauge the strategy and likelihood of success of the repeal effort.

Cespedes testified that he tried to keep the plan to recruit Fehrman from Kiani, the FirstEnergy Solutions chairman whose company financed a big portion of the fight against the repeal. Kiani was a hard-charging executive and Cespedes believed that once he learned of the spying effort, he would press the operatives relentlessly.

However, Cespedes said, Borges told Kiani about it, and it seems Cespedes’s worries were well founded.

In an Aug. 31, 2019 text, Kiani asked “what happened to the black ops?” in a reference that Cespedes said was to the spying effort. Then, in a Sept. 2, 2019 text, Cespedes told Borges that Kiani, “reiterated to do whatever it takes to get this information.”

It appears that Fehrman was paid, but it’s unclear what he was paid for.

In taped conversations played earlier in the trial, Borges discussed paying Fehrman, but he claimed to Fehrman that it was for work Fehrman might do some time in the future. But Borges made other statements that seemed to show that he knew the two were doing something wrong.

“It would be bad for both of us if the story came out,” he told Fehrman in a recording that Fehrman made with the help of the FBI. “But it would be worse for you.”

On Tuesday, Cespedes testified that he roughed out a budget at the time of the repeal campaign. He made an entry in it to pay $25,000 to an “employee.” Cespedes said the money was intended for Fehrman.

Asked why he used “employee” to label the entry, Cespedes said, “I wasn’t going to write ‘bribe.’ I wasn’t going to write anything nefarious.”

Prosecutors displayed a photograph of what they said was a contemporaneous budget that Borges roughed out in a notebook that Cespedes had photographed. Cespedes testified that when he asked Borges why a payment to Fehrman wasn’t in it, Borges “simply said it wasn’t something he wanted to write down.”

Cespedes testified that Fehrman later went quiet on Borges and Cespedes assumed that their deal had fallen through. But after the repeal campaign had failed, an accounting showed that the $15,000 had been paid, Cespedes said.

When he asked Borges about it, “He said, ‘I just wanted to keep him quiet,'” Cespedes testified.

Earlier in the HB 6 fight, Borges and Cespedes were struck by Kiani’s connections to Enron, which ceased to exist after one of the biggest corporate scandals to that point in American history.

“The shocking thing last night was learning that Kiani came from Enron,” Borges said in a text.

Kiani went from there to work as a hedge fund manager and then he made his way onto the FirstEnergy Services board as an activist investor. Cespedes testified that a Kiani aide told him that Kiani would make $100 million from the sale of FirstEnergy Solutions’ nuclear plants.

Regardless of whether that’s accurate, Kiani clearly was willing to spend lots of corporate money to win subsidies for them. To fund a statewide, eight-week media campaign for the bailout, bankrupt FirstEnergy Solutions approved a $15 million budget, Cespedes testified.

That amount would grow after the bill passed and the repeal fight got underway.

Kiani continues to be executive chairman of Energy Harbor, the new name for FirstEnergy Solutions after it emerged from bankruptcy. His company bio credits him with “the successful operational and financial turnaround of Energy Harbor into a leading, carbon free power infrastructure and energy supply company.”

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.

Republican's co-defendant delivers damning testimony against him in Ohio's largest ever corruption case

On Oct. 10, 2018, then-Rep. Larry Householder met with lobbyists representing a subsidiary of FirstEnergy in offices at 65 E. State Street that Householder shared with a 501(c)(4) dark money group. One of the lobbyists, Robert F. Klaffky, slid an envelope containing a check for $400,000 across the table and under Householder’s hand as they discussed a bailout needed by the subsidiary, FirstEnergy Services, another lobbyist, Juan Cespedes, testified Monday.

Cespedes, a co-defendant with Householder, later pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in the racketeering trial against the former Ohio House speaker and Matt Borges, a lobbyist and former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. They are accused of participating in a scheme to use $61 million — most of it from FirstEnergy — to make Householder speaker and then pass a $1.3 billion bailout of failing nuclear and coal plants, most of which were owned by FirstEnergy Services.

Weeks into the trial, Cespedes’s testimony Monday marks the first time a co-defendant or a witness with immunity has testified.

It appears that part of prosecutors’ aim was to show that Householder’s conduct wasn’t just politics as usual, as defense attorneys have argued. Instead, they wanted to show an explicit quid pro quo: that Householder worked for the energy bailout expressly in exchange for the mountain of political money FirstEnergy plowed into a dark money group that he controlled.

Prosecutors seem to have an important legal reason for doing so. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously threw out the bribery convictions of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife because the court believed the prosecution didn’t do enough to show that the governor undertook an “official act” in exchange for the $170,000 worth of gifts they received from a businessman.

On Monday, Cespedes described how he was hired on contract by FirstEnergy Services in 2018 to figure out why a bailout bill went nowhere in that year’s legislative session. He was also tasked with figuring what could be done to move one in the next.

Cespedes assessed that Householder, who was gunning to be made speaker in the 2019 House session, would be more sympathetic to the company’s needs than then-Speaker Ryan Smith, who is also a Republican.

In a meeting on Aug. 1, 2018, Householder told FirstEnergy Services lobbyist Klaffky that he would need “multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars” to help get his slate of lawmakers elected so they could make him speaker, Cespedes testified. Klaffky “pushed back and said, ‘This is a company in bankruptcy,'” Cespedes said, explaining that his team would need to find another mechanism to get Householder the money he needed without the bad optics.

Ultimately, much of it would travel through Generation Now, a dark money group that Householder controlled and that didn’t have to disclose where its money came from.

After the meeting, FirstEnergy officials decided that they would initially give Householder $500,000, but Klaffky said they would split it into payments of $400,000 and $100,000.

“I think that amount was far more than (Householder) expected,” Cespedes said.

So Householder got the first $400,000 in the unofficial State Street office Householder shared with Generation Now. The FirstEnergy Services lobbyists held back the remaining $100,000 “because we wanted another chance to get in front of him and show our support,” Cespedes testified.

He explained that it was important to his team that there be no confusion.

“We were trying to establish the fact that our support was specifically tied to the legislation,” Cespedes said.

It seems likely that Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer elicited that testimony to show that Householder took what would become millions of FirstEnergy dollars into the Generation Now account expressly in exchange for passing the bailout legislation — the sort of official act the Supreme Court said wasn’t demonstrated in the McDonnell case.

Another part of Cespedes’s testimony seems to demonstrate that some of the actors in the bailout drama believed what they did might have been on the shady side.

Pat Tully was a senior policy advisor to the state’s utility regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio in early 2019, when he sent his resume to an official with a company he was supposed to be regulating — FirstEnergy lobbyist Ty Pine. Pine forwarded it to Householder’s political strategist and soon Tully was senior energy advisor to the House Republican Caucus.

There was testimony on Friday about how Tully and PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo worked together on the bailout legislation even though it would seem improper for the state’s top regulator to involve himself in such a project. But even more suspicious is that Randazzo took $4.3 million from FirstEnergy just as he was being appointed by Gov. Mike DeWine to chair the commission, the company said in a deferred prosecution agreement.

On Monday, Cespedes described how he also worked with Tully on the legislation, House Bill 6.

“Mr. Tully did not want to have email or an electronic trace of us sending information back and forth,” the FirstEnergy Services lobbyist testified, explaining how they exchanged dozens of hard copies of the legislation.

“I found it to be extremely odd behavior,” Cespedes said. “But I understood why.”

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.

Lobbyist with ties to Ohio’s top Republicans accused of paying $15K to spy on effort to repeal corrupt utility bailout

CINCINNATI — A lobbyist with ties to Ohio’s top Republicans in 2019 paid $15,000 for inside information about a campaign to repeal $1.3 billion in utility subsidies that were later determined to be corruptly passed, according to an FBI agent’s testimony Monday.

The agent also said that Secretary of State Frank LaRose wanted to meet with leaders of Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions — the company that funded the vast majority 0f the scheme — while Attorney General Dave Yost became angered by the heavy-handed tactics used by opponents of the repeal.

It was the seventh day of testimony in the racketeering trial of former Ohio House Speaker and Matthew Borges, a former state Republican Party chairman, who lobbied to pass and protect the utility subsidy, House Bill 6. Prosecutors said they corruptly used $61 million from FirstEnergy and other utilities to elect Householder speaker, pass HB 6, and thwart the effort to repeal the bill.

Two co-defendants have pleaded guilty and another died by suicide. FirstEnergy signed a deferred prosecution agreement in which it admitted to many of its misdeeds.

When HB 6 passed in July of 2019, Gov. Mike DeWine signed it the same day. But for Householder and FirstEnergy, there wasn’t much time to celebrate. Opponents of the law quickly swung into action, gathering petitions to place a repeal on the November ballot.

In response, FirstEnergy pumped millions more into dark money groups to stop the repeal effort. What followed was a series of xenophobic ads meant to whip up unfounded fears of China.

“They took our manufacturing jobs,” a TV ad that ran in August 2019 said. “They shuttered our factories. Now, they’re coming for our energy jobs. The Chinese government is quietly invading our American electric grid… intertwining themselves financially in our energy infrastructure. Now, a special interest group… boosting Chinese financial interest… is targeting Ohio’s energy… taking Ohio money… exporting Ohio jobs… even risking our national security. They’re meddling in our elections”

The ad’s producers never showed evidence to support their claims.

The staunchest supporters of HB 6 didn’t only try to scare Ohioans into keeping the bailout. Borges also gave a $15,000 check to a man who was supposed to help gather signatures for the repeal effort, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel testified.

An employee of Advanced Micro Targeting, Tyler Fehrman complained to Borges of financial struggles related to his divorce. In text messages obtained by the FBI, Borges and Juan Cespedes — a co-defendant who has pleaded guilty — discussed inside information from Fehrman such as the number of signatures gathered by the repeal effort and where the gatherers were focusing their work.

In a conversation between Borges and Fehrman recorded on Sept. 10, 2019, Borges seemed to acknowledge that what he was doing was improper.

“I’m so f****ng nervous,” Fehrman said.

Borges replied, “You texted me (that) your personal integrity is not for sale. You’re not trying to set me up, are you?”

Borges later said, “It would be bad for both of us if the story came out. But it would be worse for you.”

In a subsequent conversation on Oct. 21, 2019, Fehrman told Borges he was nervous because a reporter was asking whether someone working for the petition campaign had been flipped. He said he was also worried about being questioned under oath.

Borges told him that the $15,000 he paid Fehrman wasn’t related to the information Fehrman was providing. It was for other projects, Borges said.

“We decided to put those off until this effort is over,” Borges said.

Fehrman reported his arrangement with Borges to the FBI. Wetzel, the agent who testified Monday, said Fehrman was upset with Borges, but didn’t explain why.

As he explained meeting with Fehrman, Wetzel said the opponents of the repeal campaign were routinely being followed, so he had to be careful that nobody followed Fehrman to meetings with the FBI.

Stories of following and harassing people who signed repeal petitions angered Attorney General Dave Yost, the Toledo Blade reported. In earlier texts, Borges, a former campaign manager for Yost, said that his old boss thought House Bill 6 was a bad law, but didn’t speak out against it because FirstEnergy had given Yost money.

But Yost — who has to approve the language of any initiative before it goes on the ballot — erupted at Borges after hearing about a woman who was followed and harassed by people hired to block the repeal effort.

Private investigators were also paid more than $100,000 to track people involved in the petition effort, Wetzel testified. In some instances, they went as far as attaching GPS devices to petition circulators’ vehicles, Wetzel said.

But as Yost was souring on the campaign to support HB 6, another statewide official seems to have been warming to it.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose chairs the Ohio Ballot Board, which also has to review the language of initiatives before they go on the ballot. In a November 2019 text conversation, Borges told Cespedes that LaRose wanted to meet John Kiani, board chairman of FirstEnergy Solutions, the FirstEnergy subsidiary that owned the failing nuclear and coal plants.

Borges said LaRose, “told me he wants to get to know Kiani, and I said, ‘Are you sure about that?'”

Cespedes replied, “He will live to regret that.”

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 corruption trial: Millions in dark money used to call dark money 'dirty'

CINCINNATI — In politics, logical and moral consistency often aren’t the highest priorities. That was starkly true in the 2018 campaign to make then-Rep. Larry Householder speaker in the legislative session that would begin the following January, according to evidence presented in federal court on Wednesday.

Householder is accused of racketeering in a scheme to use $61 million in utility company contributions to elect a legislature that would elect him speaker and pass a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of failing nuclear and coal plants. At the time of his arrest in 2020, federal prosecutors said it was likely the biggest bribery and money-laundering scandal in the long history of public corruption in Ohio.

In 2016, a financially struggling Householder was running for his old Perry County House seat with an eye toward regaining the speaker’s gavel two years later. At the same time, Akron-based FirstEnergy was losing so much on its nuclear-and-coal-plant subsidiary that it was starting a process that would ultimately send it into bankruptcy. Prosecutors have suggested that the ratepayer subsidies made them easier to spin off.

Householder and the company’s executives quickly formed a relationship that appears to have been formalized on a joint trip to Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump’s January, 2017 inaugural during which they flew on private jets and enjoyed a series of fancy meals.

Just a few weeks later, two Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) “dark money” groups were founded — including one by a FirstEnergy lobbyist who would later become Gov. Mike DeWine’s governmental affairs director. Shortly thereafter, what would become tens of millions of FirstEnergy dollars started to flow into and between them, and becoming dark money in the process.

In U.S. District Court on Wednesday, federal prosecutors laid out in stupefying detail how the dollars traveled through the dark money groups, Generation Now and Partners for Progress, and into political action committees and limited liability companies with names like Hardworking Americans and Hardworking Ohioans.

Dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors and in her opening statement last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter said the entire point of sending the dollars on such a tortuous journey was to make them hard to trace. But on the stand, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel explained how he used subpoenaed bank statements, extracted text messages, emails and wiretaps to do so.

Wetzel testified that in early 2018, Householder was working to get a slate of House candidates through the May Republican Primary. The hope was also to get them through the November General Election, so they could vote to make him speaker the following January.

Glatfelter walked Wetzel through how dark money originating with FirstEnergy eventually ended up being spent on campaign ads. One, against Householder’s primary opponent, went after him for taking dark money.

In other words, dark money was being used to slam the use of dark money.

It slammed Kevin Black for “dirty money, dirty politics” over the funding — and because he had been supported by former Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenburger, who had been the object of an FBI investigation.

The latter criticism could seem ironic, given that Householder himself became the object of an FBI investigation in 2004 during his first stint as speaker.

But consistency and avoiding hypocrisy hardly seemed to be the point in a March 2018 wiretapped phone conversation between Householder and political consultant Neil Clark. The consultant was also charged in the case, but he died by suicide in 2021.

Referring to the ad attacking Black, Householder said, “I kind of like the word ‘dark’ because it means black.”

Wetzel, the FBI agent, also described a TV ad funded with Householder-controlled dark money that attacked Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, a Democrat running against a member of “Team Householder” in the 2018 General Election.

The ad showed police cam video of Foley, who said he was stopped for speeding and that he passed a field sobriety test. The ad, however, said Foley had failed several tests and that he was “just another corrupt politician.”

It closed by saying “We can’t trust Drunk Dan Foley,” the Dayton Daily News reported at the time.

Householder’s own epic corruption trial resumes Thursday and is expected to last until March.

Political operative Juan Cespedes, who has pleaded guilty, is expected to testify after Wetzel’s testimony is complete.

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 corruption trial texts reveal AG Yost in bed with powerful utility company

CINCINNATI — In June of 2019, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost thought a proposed utility bailout was a bad law, but he didn’t publicly oppose it because of support he’d received from the bailout’s primary beneficiary, FirstEnergy, according to lobbyists’ text messages displayed in court on Friday.

Prosecutors displayed the messages as part of the racketeering trial of former House Speaker Larry Householder and Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican Party Chairman who was acting as a lobbyist at the time the utility bailout was debated and passed. They are accused in a scheme to use $61 million to make Householder speaker in 2019 so he could pass and protect a $1.3 billion bailout that mostly went to protect FirstEnergy’s failing nuclear and coal plants.

In another development Friday, FBI Agent Blane Wetzel revealed the origin of the investigation and how Householder’s bad timing played into it.

At the time Householder and Borges were arrested in July 2020, federal prosecutors said it was likely the biggest bribery and money laundering scheme in Ohio history. Two months later, as he announced a civil suit against FirstEnergy, Yost echoed those sentiments.

“Corruption doesn’t happen on an industrial scale like this without cash,” he said in a Sept. 23, 2019, press conference. “And it’s incredibly important at this moment in our state’s history to send a message that the Ohio political system, the Ohio law-making system, the regulatory environment is not for sale. If you shut off the money spigot, the corruption withers.”

But behind the scenes 15 months earlier — according to text messages between Borges and lobbyist Juan Cespedes — Yost was pulling his punches on the bailout. Borges said Yost was doing so partly because of $24,000 he received from FirstEnergy and Borges in the cycle leading up to the 2018 election and the subsequent legislative session during which the bailout was passed.

Cespedes has pleaded guilty in the scandal and is expected to testify soon in the Householder trial.

After the scandal broke, Yost announced that he would donate his FirstEnergy-related contributions to charity.

But according to Borges, who had run earlier campaigns for Yost, the FirstEnergy money spigot helped guide the attorney general’s conduct as the bailout was making its way through the legislature. Text messages indicate that Borges was assigned to try to enlist Yost’s help with the bailout.

The legislation, House Bill 6, passed the Ohio House on May 29, 2019, and by the time of the June 26, 2019, text conversation between Borges and Cespedes, opposition to the bailout was growing as it was being debated in the Senate.

One source of opposition was from outside groups that were planning a ballot initiative to repeal HB 6 if it passed. Borges and Cespedes discussed trying to make it exempt from repeal by treating it as a revenue bill and calling it a tax — based on a $1 subsidy built into the measure.

Cespedes asked Borges what the attorney general thought.

“He’s sympathetic, but he wants to go back and look at the law,” Borges replied.

As they discussed the matter further, Borges said “Don’t repeat this,” but Yost believed the bailout was a bad law.

Yost “‘would be out front (in opposition) if not for (FirstEnergy) support and your involvement,’” Borges quoted Yost as saying.

As attorney general, Yost also would have to approve any repeal language before it went on the ballot. The AG also wanted to help with that if he could, Borges said.

“If there’s any way the law will allow him to reject the language, he will do it,” Borges texted.

Later in the day, prosecutors played a recording of a phone message Yost left with Householder in which Yost discussed background checks related to petitions to get the repeal on the ballot. While it might be unusual for the attorney general to discuss such matters with an interested party, Yost would eventually approve petitions and ballot language and allow the election to proceed.

After a bitter, xenophobic and expensive fight, the measure ultimately failed.

Yost has been subpoenaed in the case, and his spokeswoman on Friday declined to comment on the text messages.

“He was subpoenaed to potentially be a witness in this case,” the spokeswoman, Bethany McCorkle, said in an email. “At this time it is inappropriate for him to comment.”

In a separate development, Wetzel, the FBI agent, explained how his investigation started. He’d been contacted by Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, because Greenspan was concerned about the propriety of HB 6, which members had been subjected to great pressure to support.

Wetzel testified that he and Greenspan met at a Columbus Bob Evans restaurant to discuss the matter on May 28, 2019 — the day before the initial version of the bailout was passed by the House. Wetzel didn’t describe what Greenspan’s claims were, but during the meeting, the lawmaker got a text from Speaker Householder.

The text asked Greenspan to delete all previous texts regarding House Bill 6, the agent said. That prompted Wetzel to take steps to obtain those communications.

Testimony resumes Monday in a trial that is expected to last into March.





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.

Corruption trial: Texts show close consultation between ex-Ohio GOP speaker and energy execs

CINCINNATI — A series of text messages displayed in federal court Thursday showed close consultation between executives of an electric utility and a lawmaker after the utility made huge contributions to make him Ohio House speaker. The consultations occurred as the lawmaker and the utility worked furiously to pass a huge bailout favoring the company.

The evidence could be key because prosecutors have to show that the lawmaker, Larry Householder, took the contributions in exchange for ramrodding the bailout, which mostly benefited Akron-based FirstEnergy.

The text messages also show that Householder and FirstEnergy officials at least expected help from Gov. Mike DeWine in passing the legislation, House Bill 6, through the Ohio Senate. DeWine has denied any wrongdoing in the case, but he signed the bill into law on the same day in 2019 that it passed out of the legislature.

HB 6 was titled the “Ohio Clean Air Act,” but federal prosecutors have said it was likely the biggest bribery and money laundering scandal in Ohio history. They allege that $61 million in utility money was plowed into an effort to make Householder, a Republican from Glenford, speaker in exchange for a $1.3 billion bailout that mostly benefited FirstEnergy’s failing nuclear and coal plants.

FirstEnergy has fired its top executives and it admitted to much of its conduct in a deferred prosecution agreement. In addition, two of Householder’s co-defendants have pleaded guilty and a third died by suicide.

But Householder and another defendant, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, are fighting the racketeering charges. Householder’s lawyers are arguing that there was nothing untoward about the FirstEnergy contributions and that he wanted to save the generating plants because that meant saving Ohio jobs and funding for public schools.

But the evidence introduced Thursday showed meticulous coordination to pass the massive bailout bill in the days after Householder took up the speaker’s gavel.

During earlier days of the trial, prosecutors used subpoenaed bank records, text messages and wiretaps to show that in 2017 Householder and FirstEnergy set up two 501(c)(4) dark money groups and even though it was losing money, FirstEnergy funneled millions into them. Householder used that money to recruit and support Republican House candidates who would vote to make him speaker in January 2018, the evidence indicated.

Then on Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter introduced text and phone messages showing that once Householder was speaker, efforts turned to passing the bailout.

When the Householder-led House passed the first version of the bill on May 29, 2019, there was an obvious sense of euphoria. Jeff Longthreth, a co-defendant who has since pleaded guilty, texted FirstEnergy lobbyist Ty Pine and said, “I have 10-12 reps in the back room at Mitchell’s (Steakhouse) having dinner. They’re all ‘yes’ votes.”

Pine replied, “Headed there now.”

It’s unclear who footed the bill for that dinner, but two of FirstEnergy’s top executives were exultant.

“Boom! Congrats. This doesn’t happen without CEO leadership,” Vice President Mike Dowling texted FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones.

“We made a big bet and it paid off,” Jones replied.

“We made a big double bet and it paid off,” Dowling texted and later added, “Now we can go back for more.”

To which Jones responded, “No party tonight. We need to plan one with the speaker.”

But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the bailout after its initial passage. The measure still had to get through the Ohio Senate and there was debate over the size and duration of the portion of the bailout that benefitted FirstEnergy’s money-losing coal plants.

Called a “decoupling” subsidy, it was guaranteed revenue for the plants even if electricity usage went down. It might seem ironic for a “clean air” bill to keep coal plants burning when ratepayers use less electricity, but that was the effect of the subsidy.

As Householder worked to get a bill to FirstEnergy’s liking through the Senate, he asked Jones for help with the governor.

“This would be a very good time for the governor to show support for HB 6,” Householder texted Jones.

“I will work on it,” Jones replied.

To that, Householder said, “He’s made supportive statements, but he’s been fairly reserved.”

Four days later, on June 27, 2019, Jones texted Householder that he’d had what was from FirstEnergy’s perspective a positive influence on HB 6 as it made its way through negotiations in the Senate.

“Ten years of decoupling back in,” he said, while also grousing negotiations handled by John Judge, CEO of FirstEnergy Services, the subsidiary that owned the failing coal plants. Jones didn’t believe the six-year subsidy Judge was asking would be enough to enable the company to sell the plants.

“That will be $600 million,” Householder texted, referring to the new, larger subsidy Jones had put in play.

On July 15, 2019, amid growing worries that the utility bailout was stalling in the Senate, Jones texted Householder to say he was still trying to enlist the help of DeWine.

“We are trying to get the governor to make a call to Obhof,” Jones said, referring to then-Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina.

“K,” Householder replied.

Testimony will resume on Friday in the case, which is expected to last until early March.

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.

Angling for appeal? Attorneys go after judge in 'largest money-laundering scheme in Ohio history'

CINCINNATI — There has been speculation since the start of a massive public corruption trial that lawyers for the main defendant — former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder — were banking on getting any conviction tossed out on appeal.

There might have been evidence of that on Tuesday when one of the attorneys took the rare step of accusing the judge in the case of bias against his client. The attorney also suggested that the judge harbored a political grudge against Householder going back more than 22 years.

Testimony resumed Tuesday in the case after repeated delays — first because of weather and then because a juror tested positive for covid.

When it did, federal prosecutors continued presenting extensive evidence to support allegations that Ohio utilities paid $61 million into Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) dark money groups and Householder used the money to elect friendly Republicans to make himself speaker in early 2019. Householder is accused of pushing through a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout that primarily benefited his primary benefactor — Akron-based FirstEnergy — in return.

Prosecutors have said it was likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scheme in Ohio history.

Federal prosecutors are known to usually file charges only when they’re almost certain to get a conviction. That’s perhaps even more true when the case is against an elected official.

And over the course of testimony so far, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter has introduced reams of evidence in the form of emails and text messages, as well as transcripts of wiretaps and witness testimony — including that of co-defendants who have pleaded guilty.

Householder’s attorneys have argued that their client raising money and electing candidates who would support his speaker’s bid was just politics as usual. They also argue that Householder only wanted to prop up failing nuclear and coal plants because he wanted to save jobs and protect the tax bases of the communities where they were located.

Householder also is alleged to have pocketed $500,000 in utility money himself, but his lawyers say those were loans he fully intended to repay.

However, the attorneys’ conduct on Tuesday might indicate that they’re looking past the jury trial.

Before the jury entered the courtroom, Householder attorney Mark Marein rose to complain to U.S. District Judge Timothy Black — about the conduct of Black himself.

“We all collectively believe that the court holds animosity toward us,” Marein said, referring to Householder’s legal team. He added, “I question whether (Judge Black) should be presiding over this.”

Black scolded Householder’s lawyers last week for muttering and making faces during Glatfelter’s opening statement. Among his criticisms, Black called the conduct “bush league.”

The judge also dismissed a juror who refused to wear a mask in court. That prompted speculation that Householder’s lawyers were displeased because such a juror might be more sympathetic to their client, a pro-Trump Republican.

But Marein gave a wholly different reason for suspecting that the judge was biased against Householder. He said that Black might be holding a grudge from 2000, when Black ran for the Ohio Supreme Court and Householder worked against the candidacy.

Both Marein and Black acknowledged that Marein was making the statements simply to get them into the record — presumably so they would be there in the event of an appeal.

There is some precedent for overturning public corruption convictions over complaints of judicial bias and prosecutorial misconduct.

In 2009, the conviction of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was thrown out after the FBI was found to have withheld exculpatory evidence and other misconduct. And in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, ruling that the trial court judge allowed prosecutors to use an overly broad definition of bribery.

But accusing a judge of bias in the middle of a trial has risks. Lawyers have said that if one genuinely believes a judge is biased, accusing that person of it in open court could simply make things worse. And in some instances, such accusations have resulted in professional sanctions against the lawyers making them.

There were a few other developments of interest Tuesday:

Prosecutors played a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation between Householder and political operative Neil Clark in December 2017. Clark was also charged in the corruption scandal, but later died by suicide. In a laughing, profanity-strewn passage, the two talked about how Republicans legislators in 2010 drew a portion of Columbus into former U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi’s district. “Tiberi wanted a safer district,” Householder said, later adding, “He doesn’t like me because he thinks I f*****d with him.” The maps drawn in 2011 were said to have some of the most gerrymandered in the country. Last year, a Republican-controlled panel repeatedly refused orders from the state Supreme Court to draw them more evenly.Householder allies and FirstEnergy officials in August 2017 discussed a third tranche of $250,000 from the company to a Householder-controlled dark-money group at the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where that state’s Coal Association was holding its annual meeting. The money flowed soon thereafter. That meeting follows a round of swanky dinners in Washington, D.C., involving Householder and FirstEnergy officials the previous January during former President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Two dark-money groups were set up within weeks and one quickly received the first $250,000 from FirstEnergy, even though was hemorrhaging money.

The trial resumes Wednesday. It’s expected to last into March.





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.

'Conspiracy mastermind': Fate of former Ohio House speaker could hinge on one factor

It appears that federal prosecutors have a mountain of evidence they want to present to the jury in their racketeering case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges.

They have emails, text messages, wiretap transcripts, and the testimony of undercover agents and confidential informants. They have so much material that U.S. District Judge Timothy Black said prosecutors and defense attorneys labored mightily before the trial even started to agree on what could be presented to the jury. The process was meant to avoid bogging down what’s already expected to be a six-week ordeal.

But all that evidence could miss the mark if none of it shows that Householder undertook an “official act” in exchange for all the millions Akron-based FirstEnergy funneled into 501(c)(4) dark money groups to support the effort to elect friendly Republicans who would vote to make Householder speaker. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a public corruption conviction on that basis just six years ago.

Householder is accused of masterminding a conspiracy to use $61 million from FirstEnergy and other utilities to make himself speaker and in return ramming through a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of failing nuclear and coal plants. His trial began last week, but after two days of testimony it was delayed — first because of weather and then because a juror was diagnosed with COVID.

But last week, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel testified about conduct that made both Householder and FirstEnergy look pretty bad.

Householder is accused of using about $500,000 from the dark money groups to pay off credit card debt, settle a lawsuit, and repair a Florida home. Meanwhile, FirstEnergy was losing so much money on its nuclear and coal plants that in 2016 it started the process that would send the subsidiary that owned them into bankruptcy.

But even as the company and Householder were swimming in red ink, he and the company’s CEO flew to Washington, D.C., on private jets in January 2017 for three days of dinners and drinks at some of the city’s swankiest bars and restaurants, Wetzel said.

Within two weeks, FirstEnergy money was flowing into Householder-controlled dark-money accounts. In November of 2018, enough Householder-friendly Republicans were elected — many with the help of money from those accounts — to make him speaker the following January. Less than six months later, on May 28, 2019, the House passed its first version of the billion-dollar bailout, House Bill 6. The body passed a final version on July 23, 2019 and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it the same day.

When former U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers announced Householder’s arrest almost exactly a year later, he called the scheme with FirstEnergy “likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scheme ever in the state of Ohio.”

But did Householder undertake an official act in exchange for money corruptly received from FirstEnergy and other Ohio utilities? The answer might not be as straightforward as you think.

For their part, Householder’s attorneys are arguing that their client was merely raising money like any effective politician would and that he only wanted to subsidize the power plants to save Ohio jobs and the tax bases of school districts.

In addition, the Supreme Court in 2016 threw out the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell even though he and his wife took more than $170,000 worth of loans and gifts from a businessman in exchange for hosting him at functions, recommending his product to state agencies, and trying to persuade state universities to study it.

At issue was whether any of those were “official acts.”

In that case, Jonnie Williams, CEO of Star Scientific, supported the Virginia Republican’s successful 2009 campaign. Once in office, the gifts really started to flow — including $20,000 worth of designer clothing for McDonnell’s wife, Maureen McDonnell, and a Rolex watch that Maureen gave Bob for Christmas.

Williams was peddling a compound found in tobacco as a nutritional supplement called Anatabloc. In 2011, the McDonnells hosted an event at the Governor’s Mansion that Williams testified was intended to launch the product. He wanted scientists at the state’s universities to research it, but neither he nor the McDonnells could interest them in the supplement.

The governor also told the state secretary of administration and the director of the Virginia Department of Human Resources that it would be a good idea for all state employees to take Anatabloc like he was. The officials apparently didn’t take the hint.

Investigators caught wind of the McDonnells’ arrangement with Williams and charged them with numerous crimes related to bribery.

In 2014, they were convicted in federal court and Bob and Maureen were sentenced to two and one year in prison, respectively. They appealed, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond upheld the conviction.

However, when the case made it north to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Washington, D.C., it was overturned. Unanimously.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the ruling, said that the court took up the case expressly “to clarify the meaning of ‘official act.'”

In his trial, “Governor McDonnell had requested the court to further instruct the jury that the ‘fact that an activity is a routine activity, or a ‘settled practice,’ of an office-holder does not alone make it an ‘official act,’ and that ‘merely arranging a meeting, attending an event, hosting a reception, or making a speech are not, standing alone, ‘official acts,’ even if they are settled practices of the official,’ because they ‘are not decisions on matters pending before the government.'” Roberts wrote.

Instead, McDonnell’s lawyers argued, an official act must be intended to “influence a specific official decision the government actually makes — such as awarding a contract, hiring a government employee, issuing a license, passing a law, or implementing a regulation.”

In overturning the convictions, the high court agreed, ruling that the McDonnells could still be prosecuted, but the “Government must identify a ‘question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy’ that ‘may at any time be pending’ or ‘may by law be brought’ before a public official. Second, the Government must prove that the public official made a decision or took an action ‘on’ that question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy, or agreed to do so.”

How much comfort Householder should take from the ruling is uncertain, however. Roberts ended the ruling with what seems to be a warning to politicians thinking of doing shady stuff.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” he wrote. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this Court.”

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.

Women in states that banned abortion were already a lot more likely to die: report

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade last June, it allowed states to ban abortion altogether without regard to the consequences for women’s health in its decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health. The states that have come closest to outright bans already had big problems with maternal and infant health, a new report says.

The report, by the Gender Equity Policy Institute, said that in 2021 maternal death rates in the 16 states it classified as having post-Dobbs abortion bans were 2.4 times higher than in the 22 states that it classified as being “supportive” of abortion rights.

It classified Ohio’s law — which bans the vast majority of abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — as being one of those in 16 states that were “restrictive” of abortion rights. Maternal mortality — deaths during and shortly after pregnancy — was 1.7 times more likely in those states than in states with supportive abortion policies.

And for Black and Native American women, the situation is dramatically worse. They had 69 and 117 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, respectively, in 2021. That compares to 33 deaths per 100,000 live births in the nation as a whole.

The Gender Equity Policy Institute used data from the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do its analysis. The findings were stark.

“For those who live in one of the 22 states which support reproductive freedom, the trends are largely positive,” it said. “The health and wellbeing of women and babies in these states outpaces that of those living in states which ban or restrict abortion care. This is true across nearly all indicators.”

In states that banned or restricted abortion post-Dobbs, pregnancy-related outcomes were far worse

“The situation is dramatically different, and more precarious, for the 59% of women and girls who live in the 29 states which ban or restrict abortion care and other reproductive health care,” the report said. “On nearly every measure, people in banned and restrictive states have worse outcomes than their counterparts in supportive states. Moreover, these states are less likely to enact policies, like paid parental leave, which have been shown to improve outcomes for new parents and babies.”

The analysis found that:

6 in 10 women live in states that ban abortion or sharply limit it.7 in 10 Black women live in states that ban or restrict abortion.1 in 4 teens live in states that banned abortion after Dobbs.Babies born in banned states were 30% more likely to die in their first month of life.Twice as many single mothers were uninsured in banned states than in supportive states.The teen birth rate was twice as high in banned states.Maternal mortality nearly doubled between 2018 and 2021.Black women were almost three times as likely to die in pregnancy, childbirth, or right after giving birth as white women.Black babies were more than two times as likely to die in their first month of life as white babies.

The connection between maternal and infant health and states that passed abortion bans or tight restrictions doesn’t seem to be straightforward. But many of those same states appear to be among those that place the least emphasis on women’s and children’s health.

For example, half of the states classified in the report as having abortion bans refused to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. That leaves millions of low-income women without coverage for birth control or access to care if they become pregnant.

In Ohio, strict abortion restrictions took effect almost immediately after the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs ruling last summer. And almost right away, health care professionals reported health threats to women and girls as a result of the law, Senate Bill 23.

They include women with cancer who couldn’t get abortions in order to start chemotherapy and others whose pregnancies caused vomiting so severe that a 16-year-old lost 20 pounds and a mother of four couldn’t get off of the clinic floor, providers said in sworn affidavits. Other women’s fetuses had abnormalities so severe that their pregnancies couldn’t be successful. But under the Ohio law, they have to carry them to term anyway — even though that’s 14 times more likely to kill them than having an abortion.

As a general matter, the majority in the Dobbs decision and supporters of the Ohio law, have avoided discussing the health implications of severely restricting access to abortions.

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.