Former Ohio speaker, GOP chair found guilty of racketeering

Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal

Ohio Capital Journal Cincinatti — After more than nine hours of deliberation, a jury on Thursday found former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and state Republican Chairman Matt Borges guilty of felony racketeering charges in connection with a billion-dollar utility bailout that was passed in 2019.

Both men face maximum sentences of 20 years in what prosecutors said was likely biggest bribery and money laundering scandal in Ohio history. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black will schedule a sentencing hearing.

After the verdict, one of Householder’s attorneys, Steven Bradley, confirmed what observers have suspected almost from the start of testimony.

“Of course we’re going to appeal the verdict,” he told reporters minutes after the jury left the courtroom. Householder stood off to the side in a blue business suit, clutching a camouflage trucker cap.

He affirmed that he would continue to fight the charges.

“This is just the first step in the process,” Householder said. “Stay tuned.”

As part of the racketeering scheme, Akron-based FirstEnergy and other utilities paid tens of millions into an effort to elect friendly lawmakers in 2018 who would vote to make Householder speaker the following year. Immediately after taking the speaker’s gavel, Householder worked furiously to pass a $1.3 billion bailout, the vast majority of which benefited FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Services.

The company was being dragged down by losses from its nuclear and coal plants and executives were seeking a bailout. While it got more than $1 billion out of the deal, Householder got political power as well as more than $500,000 personally, jurors found. Borges played a smaller role, but he paid a $15,000 bribe to help defeat an attempt to repeal the bailout and he received more than $100,000 in funds that originated with FirstEnergy, prosecutors said.

The verdict could have far-reaching implications for the use of “dark money” — funds paid into 501(c)(4) organizations that don’t have to reveal the sources of their funding. In the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v FEC, the use of such funds has become ubiquitous in state and national politics.

Thursday’s verdict might start to start to draw some boundaries around such expenditures.

In the case of the Ohio bailout, a financially strapped Householder found common cause with a financially ailing FirstEnergy. After paying billions to prop up a subsidiary with failing and nuclear and coal plants, the parent corporation in 2016 decided to send the subsidiary into bankruptcy. They wanted a ratepayer subsidy for the failing nuclear and coal plants so they could be sold off after the subsidiary emerged from bankruptcy.

FirstEnergy’s top executives were seeking a bailout at the same time a financially strapped Householder was seeking a return to the Ohio speakership. Their relationship grew in luxurious settings that belied the financial problems besetting both.

Householder attended a World Series game in November 2016 in the FirstEnergy box in Cleveland with CEO Chuck Jones. Two months later, Householder flew to Donald Trump’s inauguration aboard FirstEnergy’s private jet and stayed in the same $500-a-night hotel as Jones. Prosecutors showed the jury photos of Householder’s son and a FirstEnergy executive in the back of a limousine just outside a fancy steakhouse dinner.

Within weeks of the inauguration, Householder’s underling set up Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) dark money group into which FirstEnergy almost immediately started pouring what would become tens of millions of dollars.

The money was used to fund support staff for candidates who would vote to make Householder speaker and to finance attack ads against their opponents.

When opponents started gathering signatures to repeal the bailout law, House Bill 6, FirstEnergy poured $36 million into an effort to block it. Householder took control of the push to block the repeal, while Borges assisted — both by pressuring Attorney General Dave Yost and by paying $15,000 for inside information about the petition campaign.

That money was used to finance a torrent of misleading, anti-China ads and a petition-blocking effort that in some cases devolved into outright battery, witnesses testified.

And because it was dark money, the public couldn’t know that it was FirstEnergy that was financing the gargantuan fight to pass and protect a much larger bailout from which it benefited — until federal law enforcement stepped in. During the trial, investigators from the FBI described how they used accountants, informants, subpoenas and wiretaps to unravel the tangle of dark money groups and political-action committees that were used to obscure the origins of the funds that were used in the scheme.

“Today was a victory for the people of Ohio,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker said on the steps of the Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse shortly after the verdict. Parker declined to answer whether further indictments can be expected in the case — including for Jones and other FirstEnergy executives who paid the money that the jury on Thursday determined to be bribes.

Also unknown is whether Gov. Mike DeWine’s first appointee to chair the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Sam Randazzo, will be charged. Randazzo took $4.3 million from FirstEnergy shortly before being nominated to the post and once nominated, he helped write the bailout law, House Bill 6. He resigned shortly after the FBI searched his Columbus condo in 2020.

The verdict might be sending shock waves around Capitol Square and other power centers because defense attorneys for Householder and Borges argued that the conduct described by prosecutors was perfectly legal — politics as usual.

In a statement, Parker offered a different take.

“As presented by the trial team, Larry Householder illegally sold the statehouse, and thus he ultimately betrayed the great people of Ohio he was elected to serve,” the U.S. attorney said. “Matt Borges was a willing co-conspirator, who paid bribe money for insider information to assist Householder. Through its verdict today, the jury reaffirmed that the illegal acts committed by both men will not be tolerated and that they should be held accountable.”

Outside the courthouse, Householder said that he will go back to his Perry County farm to plant a garden and fish with his kids while federal authorities complete a pre-sentence report and a sentencing hearing is scheduled.

That his attorneys plan to appeal has been suspected almost since testimony began on Jan. 23. On Feb. 1, they undertook the risky gambit of accusing Judge Black of being biased against their client in open court.

They also took a risk by placing Householder on the stand to testify in his own behalf. During cross examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter confronted Householder with numerous inconsistencies and apparent falsehoods.

Householder was asked just after the verdict if he thought the decision to testify was a mistake. He said it wasn’t

“I waited two-and-a-half years to tell my story,” he said. “I wanted the opportunity to speak.”