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Rampant ‘good old boys’ corruption is robbing Ohioans blind




Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford). Source: Ohio General Assembly.

The first couple days of the Larry Householder/Matt Borges/FirstEnergy political bribery, billion dollar bailout corruption scandal conjured up stereotypical scenes from a poorly written movie:

Fat cat politicians and lobbyists jet-setting on private corporate planes to D.C. to wine and dine at expensive steakhouses with other fat cat corporate executives. I imagine glasses of Scotch and bourbon being sloshed around as cigars are snipped and lit in celebration of a scheme to siphon more than a billion dollars from everyday Ohioans.

As FirstEnergy was drowning in losses from its uncompetitive nuclear and coal generators amid the rise of natural gas, executives dined in D.C. with lobbyist Jeff Longstreth and Householder in early 2017, who was at the time plotting his return to the Ohio House speakership.

Within weeks, FirstEnergy money was flowing into Householder’s political machine. In fact, federal prosecutors say, the same day that Longstreth opened a bank account for that 501(c)(4) “dark money” group called Generation Now that was also eventually indicted, he asked the then-vice president of FirstEnergy for money.

Soon, FirstEnergy was making quarterly $250,000 payments to the account, and at the start of 2018, Householder had $1 million to start recruiting people for “Team Householder” — Republican candidates for the Ohio House who were likely to vote to make Householder speaker, OCJ’s Marty Schladen reported prosecutors saying in opening arguments.

Longstreth and Generation Now subsequently pleaded guilty to their roles in the case, and in a deferred prosecution agreement, FirstEnergy admitted to its role in the scheme.

Another lobbyist, Juan Cespedes, was also indicted and pleaded guilty in the case, while a third — longtime right-wing Ohio lobbyist Neil Clark — died by suicide in March 2021 wearing a “DeWine for Governor” t-shirt.

Now Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Matt Borges are on trial in what prosecutors call the biggest bribery and money laundering scandal in the state’s 217-year history.

After the creation of Generation Now, other groups with names like Partners for Progress and Hardworking Ohioans were receiving big dollars — mostly from FirstEnergy — in Householder’s successful effort to get many of his candidates elected, prosecutors said. On two occasions, Householder drove to FirstEnergy’s Akron headquarters to get additional money, they said.

The money eventually totaled $61 million. Householder got the House speaker gavel in 2019 and quickly rammed through a $1.3 billion bailout that mostly benefited FirstEnergy in the form of House Bill 6, a package of measures that included $1 billion to prop up nuclear power plants in Northern Ohio, a $102-million-a-year subsidy FirstEnergy, and rules that gutted renewable energy standards.

Gov. Mike DeWine signed it the same day it was passed.

The bill also included subsidies for two 66-year-old coal plants — including one that isn’t even in Ohio. While the rest of the package was eventually repealed, those coal subsidies remain on the books and are costing Ohioans $233,000 a day.

Prosecutors say that Householder corruptly engineered the scheme to put himself in a position of power and to pay himself more than $500,000 for personal things such as paying off credit card debt and repairing his Florida house.

Householder’s defense?

The money was just a loan and he was just being a good public servant trying to save jobs by procuring the bailout for FirstEnergy. That “loan,” by the way, Householder never bothered to disclose in state ethics forms.

In a perverse way, Householder probably believes that taking a private corporate jet to eat $80 Roseda bone-on Black Angus ribeye is him performing a “public service.”

And that’s exactly the problem. It’s the arrogance that comes from a total lack of accountability.

Decades of rampant pay-to-play political corruption in Ohio has summoned a breed of public officials who treat state government like a personal playground of private profiteering for themselves and their moneyed friends.

And just because Householder is gone, doesn’t mean Ohio’s good old boys club is gone, too.

Householder’s impact remains strong at the Ohio Statehouse.

Current Republican Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens was a member of “Team Householder” and recently selected as caucus policy director Megan Fitzmartin, who worked closely with Householder and Longstreth.

And the problem doesn’t get better just because the party is fractured right now.

Stephens’ main GOP antagonist, Derek Merrin, voted against expelling Householder from the House after he was arrested, as did Stephens.

So, they agreed on that: Protecting Householder and trying to keep him in office after he was charged with racketeering for robbing Ohioans blind in a millions-on-the-billions political bribery grift. What does that tell you about their combined sense of ethics?

Meanwhile, voters just reelected Gov. DeWine, who has never even pretended to be outraged by any of this.

At least this is likely honest of DeWine; after 40 years in Ohio politics he’s so accustomed to swimming in these dark corruption waters they don’t even register a blink.

I imagine if anything’s upset him at all, it’s the sloppiness with which it was carried out — not the open bribery and large-scale robbery of the public. After all, he signed the legislation the same day it was passed, a resounding stamp of personal approval that almost never happens.

DeWine has been keeping his head down after the case revealed that he appointed a FirstEnergy consultant to regulate utilities in Ohio that the company admits bribing $4.3 million to do their bidding.

“Everybody knew,” DeWine said of his chosen utility regulator’s connections to FirstEnergy.

Maybe in their good old boys club everybody knew, but I assure you, the public did not. The public did not widely know their governor appointed an electricity corporation stooge as the state’s head watchdog over electricity corporations.

It has since been revealed that text messages show FirstEnergy executives describing an open line with the administration on the selection and inside support from DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.

In one text, a FirstEnergy executive credits DeWine and Husted with performing “battlefield triage” to save their bribed regulator’s appointment before a key vote.

And remember Partners for Progress? Another one of the dark money groups receiving funding primarily from FirstEnergy?

It was started by a senior DeWine aide while he was still a FirstEnergy lobbyist, the company’s deferred prosecution agreement showed.

Despite the damning revelations, DeWine stood by his ho-hum innocence act, stood by the aide who has since resigned, and has refused to explain anything about his administration’s role in the bailout scandal.

DeWine’s “bury your head and hide” posture has apparently worked so far.

Talk to political strategists and many will raise concerns about how motivating corruption may be as an issue for voters.

“It just doesn’t play very well,” they’ll tell you. “Everybody assumes all politicians are corrupt, and the issues just get lost in voter confusions and partisan back-and-forth accusations.”

Large-scale robbery can also be somewhat incomprehensible, they’ll add. They’ll say that people’s eyes glaze over when confronted with these intricate schemes involving unfathomable sums of money.

There’s a truth in this that I find deeply unsettling.

Petty crime often plays, while billion-dollar grifts get shrugged off as “politics as usual.”

The football coach who steals $5,000 from the local athletic boosters often faces more public scorn and swifter justice than politicians and corporations robbing the public of billions of dollars for decades on end.

Political strategists may not want to say this publicly, but I can: This is insane and these voters are wrong.

Public corruption is not just business as usual and it should never be treated that way.

We must never normalize the public being cheated so viciously, so consistently, over such a long period of time, with zero accountability.

It’s not “the” government, and it sure as hell isn’t their government. This is our government. We’ve established it to serve us, not them.

Public officials who put themselves and their steak dinner, golfing, and drinking buddies ahead of the other 11 million Ohioans who desperately need government to be working for us instead of against us, need to face the wrath of prosecutors and voters alike.

With the Householder and Borges racketeering case, we’re getting a taste of real accountability.

Federal agents and prosecutors appointed from both sides of the aisle are to be greatly thanked and commended.

But this is just a beginning.

Ohioans have decades of work ahead of us to purge our halls of power of these frauds and their next generation offspring, who so shamelessly game and cheat the public.

They’re stealing our money, every day, literally. In myriad ways, but right now, at the very least, $233,000 a day. Just that one theft is on every electric bill people pay.

I swear these people are traipsing through life with a Goodfellas voiceover going on in their minds about how slick they are and how smooth they’ve got it.

They think the public is stupid and easily swindled, and will never do anything to stop them as long as they lie, manipulate, and gaslight enough.

That’s an abuser’s mentality.

Ohio needs a reckoning. Without it, I promise, all of this will just continue. Throw a dart and pick a special interest. This is how Ohio government has operated for a long, long time.

Will we still sit idly by as they continue to rob us all and give away billions in our money and resources to corrupt private interests?

Because that’s what they’re counting on.

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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