Court Battles

Corruption trial for former Ohio House Speaker finishes closing arguments

Former Republican Speaker Larry Householder speaks to the media immediately after his expulsion from the Ohio House on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. The Republican-led House voted 5-21 to remove him. Householder is accused of taking money from a utility in exchange for orchestrating a multi-million dollar scheme to get him elected as speaker. He has pleaded not guilty and publicly proclaimed his innocence. (Andrew Welsh-Huggins

The corruption trial of Larry Householder entered closing arguments Tuesday, two and a half years after the former Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives was arrested and implicated in a $60 million bribery scheme.

Prosecutors allege that Householder orchestrated a broad scheme funded by the utility company FirstEnergy Corp. to win the state Speakership, shore up House allies and pass legislation friendly to the company. That included a $1.3 billion, taxpayer-funded bailout for the company’s nuclear power plants.

Lobbyist and former Ohio GOP Chairman Matt Borges is also standing trial in the case. He is accused of attempting to bribe an operative working against the bailout legislation.

Both Householder and Borges are charged with racketeering, which could carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison if they are convicted. They pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The trial is now in its seventh week. Householder took the stand in his own defense last week and claimed innocence.

The prosecutor’s case

Householder was Ohio House Speaker from 2001 to 2004 and left government following an investigation into campaign finance violations. He returned to the House in 2017 and was elected Speaker by a bipartisan coalition. 

Prosecutors allege that his 2017 return was funded by FirstEnergy dark money, and that Householder used the utility’s money and influence to buy those speakership votes and support for his agenda.

His agenda centered on a bill that would charge Ohioans a fee on their utility bill to fund two Northern Ohio nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy, as well as gut renewable energy regulation in the state.

It was passed and signed into law by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) in 2019. Following an investigation into the alleged bribery scheme, the Ohio state legislature repealed the nuclear energy subsidy portion of the law.

FirstEnergy announced plans to close the two plants in 2018. The company admitted to giving money to Householder and agreed to pay a $230 million fine last year.

Three others were arrested alongside Householder and Borges in 2020. Householder’s political strategist Jeff Longstreath and lobbyist Juan Cespedes both pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and testified against Householder at trial. The third man arrested, lobbyist Neil Clark, died by suicide in 2021.

Householder was removed as House Speaker not long after he was charged with racketeering in 2020. He retained his House seat and was reelected that fall. He was expelled from the House in June 2021.

The investigation and trial have also implicated DeWine, who hired a former FirstEnergy lobbyist as his legislative director and reportedly asked FirstEnergy to help elect his daughter as a county prosecutor in 2019. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted was also part of federal investigations. Neither DeWine or Husted have been accused of a crime.

The trial so far

Federal prosecutors took six weeks to lay out their case against Householder and Borges. The defense took just days to respond.

When he took the stand last week, Householder denied nearly every element of the prosecution’s case. He said the Republicans who testified against him were still holding onto grudges from the 2019 Ohio House Speaker race.

“This divisiveness has to end,” Householder said. “They never gave it up.”

Much of his testimony featured his signature humor and charm, which some analysts believe was an attempt to court the jury.

After taking Friday and Monday off, closing arguments in the case began Tuesday.

“Mr. Householder did not act alone, but he was at the top,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Singer said in closing arguments. “He benefited the most because the enterprise was set up to benefit his political machine.”

Singer said the bribery plan was hatched while Householder was in Washington, D.C. for President Trump’s January 2017 inauguration. Householder denies that the meetings took place, saying that he got pizza with his family instead of steak dinners with the utility company while in the capital.

Householder and FirstEnergy claim that the $60 million donated to Householder-affiliated dark money organizations were legitimate political donations with no strings attached. Singer disagreed.

“The evidence is clear: Mr. Householder received that money knowing what it was for,” he said.

In the defense’s closing arguments, Householder’s attorney Steve Bradley cast doubt on the prosecutor’s timeline of events and sowed doubts on what the government alleged happened. He also said the investigation was poorly executed.

“This was a woefully incomplete investigation,” Bradley said, accusing the government of bias. “They don’t want evidence that is inconsistent with their theory of the case.”

Instead of payment for a bill, as the prosecution alleges, FirstEnergy’s donations to Householder were because of Householder’s long-standing pro-utilities record, Bradley claimed.

The prosecutor made a final appeal to jurors for the government’s case.

“You saw the unlimited money that was flowing from FirstEnergy to Generation Now. You saw that they got in return: a massive subsidy, a massive piece of legislation,” Singer said. “$60 million. Did he receive it knowing that the expectation was to provide legislation in return? The only reasonable answer is yes.”

The jury is now tasked with determining the defendants’ innocence or guilt.

Updated 4:16 p.m.

Tags bailout campaign finance Gov. Mike DeWine Larry Householder Matt Borges Mike DeWine Ohio

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