The New Mt. Rushmore: Householder Trial Updates #2 and a Look Back into the Scandal

Larry Householder and Matt Borges’ trial has been postponed until Monday, Jan. 30 because a juror tested positive for COVID.  In the meantime, let’s go back in time.  

By Sandy Theis, former reporter and political analyst

New Faces on Mount Rushmore

It was July 2019, and FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones just had to gloat.

Gov. Mike DeWine had just signed House Bill 6 — a law designed to stick electricity customers with the cost of bailing out nuclear power plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary.

“HB6 – F*** ANYBODY WHO AIN’T US,’’ Jones crowed in a text to Sam Randazzo, the utility lawyer who DeWine had appointed chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio a few months before. The text included a photoshopped picture of Mount Rushmore with the presidents’ faces replaced with those of Randazzo, two FirstEnergy executives and a coal company executive—the people Jones viewed as vital to finalizing the billion-dollar bailout.

Mt. Rushmore has photoshopped faces of then-FirstEnergy lobbyist Ty Pine, former FirstEnergy VP Mike Dowling, former Chair of the PUCO Sam Randazzo, and Pres. of Boich Companies – “Company C” in the Householder corruption complaint– Matt Evans.

Although the utility executives have since been fired and FirstEnergy now admits to bribing Randazzo, none of the people Jones put on Mount Rushmore have been charged in the on-going investigation. But former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder (who didn’t make the mountain) is standing trial for racketeering.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Householder secretly controlled a dark money group that received about $60 million from FirstEnergy, used some of it to enrich himself and some to win the Speaker’s job and pass the bailout.

So why is Householder on trial and not the lobbyists who helped collect and direct the alleged bribes or the now-former utility regulator who FirstEnergy said accepted its bribes?

We posed that question to some of the bailout’s toughest critics.

Ned Hill, a professor of economic development at Ohio State University, referenced John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, the sculptor who gave us the real Mount Rushmore. Householder couldn’t be on Mount Rushmore because he was the guy who carved the sucker,’Hill said. 

He described the scandal as so complex “and of such high magnitude that it’s like trying to make a distinction among mortal sins.’’

Former PUCO Commissioner Ashley Brown offered this theory: “Did they get their perch on Mount Rushmore not only for completing the crime but for getting away with it?’’

Then Brown grew serious and said he’s eager to learn more about the roles played by Gov. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted.

“They (DeWine and Husted) are central to this whole thing,’’ said Brown, who now heads the Harvard Electricity Policy Group. “They set up meetings, they asked for money, Husted recruited Randazzo …. DeWine even asked FirstEnergy for money to help his daughter become the Greene County Prosecutor.’’ At the time, DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the Republican governor has made “this type of ask” for numerous groups over the years.

Unraveling the Conspiracy

Before a COVID-infected juror temporarily halted the trial this week, jurors heard from veteran FBI agent Blane Wetzel, who led the massive investigation. He explained how the case began with a tip from an informant he did not name, and he detailed information culled from wiretaps, informants, and more than 250 subpoenas. 

“It was like peeling back the layers of an onion,’’ Wetzel testified.  

He discussed the early days of Householder’s talks with officials from FirstEnergy, a 2017 trip to President Trump’s inaugural aboard the Akron utility’s jet and pricey steak dinners in the nation’s capital. Flying with Householder were Dowling, Cleveland businessman Tony George, lobbyist and Cuyahoga County GOP leader Rob Frost and Householder’s son, Luke.

Soon after, utility executives cut a $250,000 check for Generation Now, the dark money group created to back Householder and the candidates who pledged to support him for the powerful job of House Speaker.

Firings at FirstEnergy

In October 2020, FirstEnergy fired Jones as its CEO and Dowling as a senior Vice President. The company said a review by an independent committee of the board found the executives violated company policies and code of conduct. The firings followed a plea deal earlier in the day involving two people charged in the investigation. Both are expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.

The DC dinners — including two in one night — came just weeks after Householder won his House seat. But the Republican politician was crafting a plan to become Speaker for the second time.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, Householder began to list allies already on Team Householder or those he and his team hoped would come aboard. Among possible donors they targeted for $250,000: FirstEnergy, Boich Company and Murray Energy. Those targeted for $100,000 included Columbus-based AEP Corp. and Castellini Management.

We previously learned that Dowling incorporated Partners for Progress in the state of Delaware instead of Ohio so it would be harder for the public to learn details about the group. The FirstEnergy-funded dark money group served as what the FBI has called an “energy pass-through.” We also previously learned that Matt Evans, a coal company executive, donated $125,000 to pro-HB 6 groups. Dowling and Evans both made Mount Rushmore.

We know from the Dayton Daily News that Akron-based FirstEnergy and FirstEnergy Solutions donated more than $1 million to nonprofit groups and political campaigns since 2017 to help elect DeWine. We know the figure includes $400,000 from FirstEnergy Solutions — hand-delivered to Householder in an Oct. 10, 2018, meeting. Householder remembered his manners; “$400k..thank you,” he wrote in a text to Dowling.

The FBI’s Wenzel took the jury back to Householder’s first documented outreach to FirstEnergy in 2016 as the company was “bleeding cash” over its poorly managed nuclear plants as energy prices plunged. In an August 2016 email to Dowling, Householder wrote: “Can we arrange for a meeting in the next week or so?”

The Householder trial is complicated, but we should not let the complexity cloud the obvious.  The photoshopped image of Mt. Rushmore highlights that the Householder trial isn’t just about money, it’s also about power.  It also demonstrates the absurdity of the whole enterprise.

Take action today and let the Ohio General Assembly know that it’s time to create greater transparency and accountability in elections and government.

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