Day One of the Householder Trial: “If This Looks Complicated, It Is Purposeful”

By Sandy Theis, former reporter and political analyst 

CINCINNATI — Emily Glatfelter, the lead federal prosecutor trying to convict Larry Householder of racketeering, summed up the case against him this way:

“Larry Householder sold the statehouse. He ripped off the people he was elected to serve … and he made backroom deals to exchange his power for money.’’

For about an hour and with help from charts, spreadsheets and photos, Glatfelter described in detail how the alleged bribe money often traveled from FirstEnergy and American Electric Power through a tangle of other groups before landing in Generation Now, a dark money group that she said Householder controlled and is vital to the racketeering case against him.

She made her comments on day one of the trials of Householder and ex-Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges. They are accused of allegedly running a criminal enterprise that took nearly $61 million in bribes that were used to install Householder as House Speaker and then pass and defend House Bill 6 (HB 6), a bill to bail out two northern Ohio nuclear power plants and two aging, coal-fired plants.

“If this looks complicated, it is purposeful,’’ Glatfelter said. The scheme was long planned and structured to hide the money and make it difficult to trace.

Householder’s defense lawyer told a starkly different tale.

“The government got it all wrong,’’ Householder attorney Steven Bradley told the jury. “Larry was never bribed to advance this legislation.’’

He painted Householder as a self-made businessman deeply committed to helping all Ohioans – especially the voters in his Perry County district where decades of mining and farming have hurt the environment and stalled economic development. Householder favored legislation to bail out the nukes to preserve the jobs they provide and the carbon-free power they produce, Bradley said.

Whether Householder and Borges are saints or sinners will be up to jurors hearing the case before U.S. District Court Judge Tim Black. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.

Both maintain their innocence, and Householder said he looks forward to telling his side of the story.

But outside the courtroom, experts in both ethics and energy policy said Ohio is overdue for reforms that promote accountability and transparency. Such reforms could dissuade future lawmakers from selling legislation, they said.

“Better disclosure would be very helpful,’’ said David DeVillers, the now-former U.S. Attorney who once oversaw the case. DeVillers has complained that even with subpoena power the FBI faced challenges trying to follow the money.

After the first indictments in 2020, Common Cause Ohio convened experts who helped craft its Blueprint for Democracy: How We Can Stop Being Ripped Off. Among its recommendations: Shine a light on dark money, and re-open the legislature’s bill-writing records. The records were closed about 20 years ago when a state senator who had been paid by an electric utility introduced a bill to benefit the same utility, and the utility, not the legislator, had written the bill. The only change that resulted from that utility scandal was lawmakers made it harder to find out who really writes legislation.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling suggests that any dark money reforms must be narrowly tailored, DeVillers said, but he suggested that an independent agency be created to advance narrow but effective reforms that non-profits would be encouraged to embrace and shamed if they refused. He also supported re-opening the bill-writing records.

“It’s just common sense,’’ DeVillers said.

National energy expert Ashley Brown, who runs the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, openly laughed at the assertion that Householder’s support for HB 6 is tied to his concern for cleaner power.

“Isn’t it Frank Sinatra who sings, ‘Fairytales Can Come True’?” asked Brown, who once served as the consumer voice on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. “That’s a fairytale. It’s ludicrous.’’

If Householder truly cared about the environment, Brown asked why the bill also sticks Ohio utility customers with the costs of subsidizing two dirty coal plants.

Brown joined DeVillers in calling for ways to determine the real source of dark or secret money.

Much of the day reinforced information that the public already knew, but prosecutors explained that Attorney General Dave Yost and some unnamed lawmakers would be called as witnesses.

The fact that both Borges and Householder called Yost, Glatfelter said, “is evidence of their intent.’’

After HB 6 passed in 2019, a group started to collect signatures to put a referendum of the bill on the ballot for voters to decide if they wanted to repeal the law.

Borges is accused of paying a political consultant for that referendum group $15,000 in exchange for information about the repeal effort.

Borges’ defense lawyer Todd Long repeatedly tried to distance Borges from Householder. “They don’t really like each other,’’ Long said.

Others expected to testify are Householder’s political strategist Jeff Longstreth and FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes who were charged in this case and later pleaded guilty. Householder fundraisers Anna Lippincott and Megan Fitzmartin will speak about how money was moved, prosecutors said.

Fitzmartin’s apparent cooperation has some House Republicans complaining about the fact that she has been hired to serve as Policy Director and Communications Director for the already fractured House Republican Caucus.

In a January 16 letter, four House GOP members noted that Fitzmartin once worked for Longstreth “during the period of time he once was engaging in activities which led to him pleading guilty to federal racketeering charges.’’ The letter calls her hiring “extraordinarily ill-advised and demonstrates questionable judgment.’’

Among the letter’s signatories is Rep. Derek Merrin. The 99-member House voted to elect Rep. Jason Stephens (R), of Kitts Hill, as Speaker of the House, despite the Republican Caucus’ decision in November to support Merrin. Stephens won the Speaker’s election with votes from Democrats and Republicans. The anti-Fitzmartin letter is the latest sign of discord among House Republicans.

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