Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder is a federal prisoner. That should give all the others in state government with their hands in the cookie jar pause, right? A once all-powerful Statehouse boss faces 20 years behind bars for orchestrating the biggest public corruption scandal in Ohio’s history. That’s deterrence enough for Householder’s political colleagues to walk the straight and narrow, no?
If only. The national news flash Ohio made last week when a federal judge threw the book at the ex-speaker may have raised a few eyebrows in Columbus but not many. Malfeasance in public office moved from shocking to systemic years ago in the state.
The dirty dance of lawmakers, lobbyists, and undisclosed donors is the culture of the capital. Ambitious pols enriching themselves and advancing their careers through dark money webs and corrupt activity that flies under the radar is “business as usual,” argued Householder’s attorney.
His client (and former lobbyist/Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges) just got caught dead to rights with outrageous bribery and racketeering. But they are far from the only ones motivated by greed and power to bend the law for lucrative paybacks. Back door, under-the-table, out-of-sight dealmaking is writing legislation now that is bought and paid for by special interests.
It’s business as usual in Ohio and getting worse.
It’s how Householder’s billion-dollar bailout of a major utility became law and withstood repeal. FirstEnergy is an influential powerhouse in Ohio politics. For decades it has greased palms with big campaign checks to reap corporate dividends. Ohio House Bill 6 was a pinnacle achievement.
But nothing about HB 6 was above board from the beginning — and everybody knew it. Those intimately engaged in shepherding the bill through the legislature were well aware of the aggressive efforts the utility giant and its affiliates were leveraging to win passage of HB 6. The measure was custom-made for one company angling for government handouts to prop up two old, uncompetitive nuke plants.
FirstEnergy had to close the deal. So it laundered over $60 million through an elaborate web of dark money groups to get it done. Householder orchestrated the scheme, spearheaded HB 6 through the Statehouse and helped himself to a gusher of ill-gotten gains. He was an easy mark for the Akron-based company that long understood how determined politicians could be bought for a career boost.
Householder and countless others in the General Assembly and statewide office gladly accepted FirstEnergy’s money to triumph at the polls. In 2018, FirstEnergy pumped $1 million into groups that helped elect Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, according to a Dayton Daily News investigation.
The utility also supported DeWine’s daughter’s failed bid for county prosecutor.
In 2019, the governor came through for FirstEnergy. He was an unfailing champion of HB 6. He appointed the state utility regulator FirstEnergy lobbied for despite warnings about Sam Randazzo’s extensive ties with the company.
DeWine stood by his PUCO pick even as reports surfaced about the chairman pocketing a pre-appointment bribe from FirstEnergy (which the utility later admitted was $4.3 million) to draft HB 6 and get it over the finish line. The nuclear plant bailout on the backs of Ohio ratepayers passed. Business as usual.
FirstEnergy kept the pressure on and the money flowing to stop a ballot initiative that threatened to scrap the corporate swindle. Government subsidies for FirstEnergy’s nuclear plants were greenlit to go in 2019. But by then the feds had gotten wind of Householder’s criminal enterprise to pass HB 6 and get elected speaker.
It was public corruption on a history-making scale. The scope of the racketeering conspiracy to buy political power in exchange for $1.3 billion in utility subsidies was stunning. A stealthy maze of nonprofits laundering untraceable dollars to elect Householder loyalists, to buy votes for the bailout bill and to poison subsequent efforts to repeal it.
The avarice of the twice-elected House speaker, flush with obscene amounts of cash and control, undid him and the pay-to-play operation he thought was his ticket to fame and fortune. Householder was seduced by the possibilities of what else “anonymous rivers of money” could buy for him personally and politically and even plotted a constitutional change that would extend his speakership years beyond current term limits.
Yet tellingly, even after prominent legislative leader was arrested and indicted in the staggering bribery and racketeering probe, House Republicans quibbled on whether his offenses really rose to the level of removal from the chamber. One adamant defender of Householder insisted members could only be expelled for “disorderly conduct” which, he implied, did not include being federally indicted for selling legislation.
The corrupt speaker lost his coveted leadership post but remained in office as a voting representative for nearly a year before fellow lawmakers finally kicked him out of state government. HB 6, the rotten-to-the-core legislation Householder was paid to enact, still remains the law in Ohio — minus the nuke subsidies which were reluctantly removed.
But a utility-friendly rider to the scandal-plagued HB 6 — that forced ratepayers to subsidize two money-losing, hyper-polluting coal plants to the tune of $400 million so far — is here to stay. One of those plants sits in the current Republican speaker’s district and he’s fine with the bailouts tucked in a bill at the heart of Ohio’s largest bribery disgrace.
Business as usual.
Marilou Johanek is a veteran Ohio print and broadcast journalist who has covered state and national politics as a longtime newspaper editorial writer and columnist.
This commentary was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.