Experts see the case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and lobbyist Matt Borges as a test of limits on dark money in Ohio politics.
This article is provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism, in partnership with the nonprofit Energy News Network. Please join the free mailing lists for Eye on Ohio or the Energy News Network, as this helps provide more public service reporting.
Jurors in Ohio’s House Bill 6 criminal corruption case have returned guilty verdicts against both former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and lobbyist and former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges.
Beyond the verdicts, experts say the case is notable for what it revealed about the systemic nature of political corruption in Ohio.
“Among the most jarring aspects of this case, besides the sheer scale of dark money funneled to Ohio politicians, was the degree to which corrupt activity was treated by elected officials as the ‘normal way of doing business,’” said Kyle Marcum, policy director for Ohio Citizen Action.
Householder and Borges were charged with violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, for actions relating to their roles in a $60 million scheme to pass and protect Ohio’s nuclear and coal bailout law, which also gutted the state’s clean energy standards.
Most of the money came from FirstEnergy and its affiliates. And most of the funds flowed through dark money organizations — groups that did not have to report their donors and can generally avoid campaign finance limits if they don’t coordinate activities with a candidate or campaign.
Money in the HB 6 case was “no mere ordinary satchel of cash politicians whip up,” said David Niven, who teaches about Ohio state politics at the University of Cincinnati. Rather, the government alleged there was a criminal enterprise under a statute generally used to go after organized crime.
And while there was a single count under RICO for each defendant, the government’s allegations amounted to a charge that there was “a concerted effort to pervert, in this case, the laws of Ohio,” Niven said.
“If that was ‘business as usual’ in politics, then the business of politics needs to change,” said Vipal Patel, former acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, who is now at Squire Patton Boggs law firm.
For Niven, the case is “a pretty dramatic wakeup call that the normal course of business in Ohio has slipped, way, way, way off the rails.”
“We need to rebuild Ohioans’ trust in our state’s leadership, and we need an end to fossil fuel and utility corruption,” said Nolan Rutschilling, managing director of energy policy for the Ohio Environmental Council.
Judge Timothy Black’s jury instructions ran 72 pages long. Jury deliberations lasted less than a day and a half following a full day of closing arguments on Tuesday and rebuttal on Wednesday.
The case is important for Ohio and nationally regardless of how the verdict came out.
“It does show that everybody is accountable for their conduct, and that while money is a part of our political system, there is a line that donors and elected officials cannot cross,” said Michael Benza, who heads the Financial Integrity Institute at Case Western Reserve University School of Law,
“This trial laid bare how Ohio’s energy policy has been influenced by utility interests and how urgently Ohio needs comprehensive climate and energy reform,” said Marcum. “After so many years of energy policy that largely favors utilities and fossil fuels, Ohio needs equitable, forward-looking solutions that will protect our air and water, the health of Ohioans, and provide clean energy jobs to keep Ohio competitive in the 21st-century economy.”
Prosecutors faced a big challenge in presenting their case, largely because dark money groups that don’t have to report their donors have played such a big role in U.S. politics since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and other cases. Even before that, utilities and fossil fuel interests have long been among big spenders in Ohio politics.
“Money is in fact the currency of politics. Power is the currency of politics,” Benza said. But when money is given with the expectation that someone will use their office to provide a benefit, “that’s when it becomes corruption.”
“There’s a lot of gray area between an outright bribe and campaign contributions meant to elect someone who might be sympathetic to a company and expected to at least listen to the company’s viewpoints on policy issues,” said Ashley Brown, former head of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group.
Evidence in the Householder case supported a finding that there was an explicit quid pro quo, Brown said. FirstEnergy “wanted something very tangible in the form of major legislation.”
As House speaker, Householder made sure that legislation passed. Money from FirstEnergy and its affiliates also funded efforts to prevent voters from getting a chance to repeal HB 6 via a referendum.
“I feel our community owes Assistant United States Attorney and Deputy Criminal Chief Emily Glatfelter and her team of prosecutors and law enforcement agents a debt of gratitude,” Patel said, adding that it’s an understatement to say they went beyond simply “a good day’s work.”
A complex case
The six-week trial, which began Jan. 23, involved thousands of pages of exhibits, along with video, voice recordings and witness testimony.
The government’s case traced the flow of money from FirstEnergy, its subsidiaries and others through dark money groups and into accounts controlled by defendants.
The government also showed how various transfers of money correlated with dates of meetings, texts, or phone calls involving one or more defendants, executives for FirstEnergy or its subsidiaries, lobbyists acting on behalf of the companies, and others.
Additional evidence documented how funds from the unlawful enterprise benefited individual defendants in the case. Householder also increased his power by getting elected speaker, and plans were underway to let him extend that tenure, the government argued.
FBI special agent Blane Wetzel was the government’s star witness. For more than a week, he described documentary evidence and explained recordings of defendants, co-conspirators and others.
Wetzel also recounted meetings with whistleblowers, such as former lawmaker Dave Greenspan and voter referendum worker Tyler Fehrman, at places such as a Bob Evans restaurant and a Graeter’s Ice Cream shop.
In contrast, trial exhibits showed Householder met with FirstEnergy executives at places like pricey steakhouses in Washington, D.C. After Householder later contested those facts, Wetzel described a group photo showing FirstEnergy’s then-vice president Michael Dowling, Householder’s son Luke, and what appeared to be Householder’s knee in pants he’d worn earlier that day. Data showed the photo was taken close to a Charlie Palmer’s Steakhouse in Washington, D.C.
Also taking the stand during the government’s case were co-defendants Juan Cespedes and Jeff Longstreth, who previously pled guilty in the hope of receiving lighter sentences. Cespedes acted as a lobbyist for FirstEnergy Solutions, and Longstreth was president of Generation Now, the central dark money group in the scheme. Neil Clark, another alleged co-conspirator, died in 2021, but his voice was heard in several recordings.
FBI agent Nathan Holbrook testified about his separate investigation of Clark. Several former lawmakers said they felt undue pressure from Householder to support HB 6. Householder fundraiser Anna Lippincott and consultant Megan Fitzmartin also took the stand during the government’s case.
Fehrman was the government’s last witness. He said Borges bribed him during the drive for a ballot referendum on HB 6. Statements made by Borges in recordings made Fehrman feel threatened, he added.
“I’m going to blow your house up,” Borges told Fehrman in one recording, referring to the possibility of a reporter asking about their dealings.
Householder was his own star witness, taking the stand after several other witnesses. He claimed he was not bribed and wanted HB 6 to pass in any case. And he denied having control over Generation Now.
Householder also said money the group used to repay a debt and make repairs at a Florida house he owned was a loan. His lawyer, Steven Bradley, called the $500,000 in personal benefits a “nothing burger” in his closing argument.
Prosecuting attorney Emily Glatfelter’s cross-examination not only contradicted points from Householder’s testimony, but also reinforced points supporting elements of the government’s case.
In contrast to claims that no one was threatened if they didn’t support HB 6, for example, the government played a recording of Householder telling Clark, “Just say if you’re going to f— with me, I’m going to f— with your kids.” One of the underlying offenses alleged in the indictment was interference with interstate commerce by threats or violence.
Glatfelter similarly challenged Householder’s claim that he didn’t have any control over Generation Now, even though he raised money for it, by presenting him with evidence where Householder reviewed the organization’s ads and asked for changes.
“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,” said Kenneth Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
The defendants could face up to 20 years in prison. Any post-trial motions, including ones that might ask for a new trial, must be filed within 14 days of the verdict, unless Judge Black extends the time.
Sentencing would take place after the resolution of those motions. “Defendants would then have 14 days after entry of judgment to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit,” said court spokesperson Jennifer Thornton.
The government may still file criminal charges against additional defendants. Parker referred to an ongoing investigation in a Feb. 23 letter asking to extend a discovery stay in four FirstEnergy cases for another six months.
Benza said he would not be surprised to see more cases filed.
“One of the things you find oftentimes in public corruption cases is there is almost no end to where it goes,” Benza said. “How high up do you take it? And how low do you go?”
Meanwhile, the case “cries out for legislative change,” Patel said, noting that he and others had warned about dark money as a way to hide names without transparency or accountability. “Otherwise, we as a society just continue to hand the modern equivalent of a brown paper bag to those who seek to corrupt our political system, and those who are willing to be corrupted.”