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Former Ohio GOP Leaders on Trial in Epic Bribery Case

A sordid mess of a story.
January 24, 2023
Former Ohio GOP Leaders on Trial in Epic Bribery Case
The Ohio Statehouse Capitol Building (Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock / Midjourney)

Even by the standards of Ohio—a state that has had more than its share of spectacular political scandals—the criminal trial of the former speaker of the state House of Representatives is staggering in its scale. FBI special agents pulled no punches back in 2021 when describing to reporters the charges against Republican Larry Householder and numerous others in a massive bribery case: “Historically, I haven’t seen anything like it,” said one. “The whole thing is amazing in scope. It’s incredible,” said another.

With jury selection finished last week, the trial got underway yesterday. Things immediately got off to a rough start: The judge had to warn Householder’s attorneys to quit their juvenile distracting antics during the prosecution’s opening statement.

The complex case involves a multiyear sting operation by the feds in which electric utility companies (FirstEnergy Corp. being the major one) allegedly paid about $60 million in bribes to the legislative leadership to ensure the utilities received multibillion-dollar subsidies to keep nuclear and coal plants operating. Apparently included in the deal was the ability to charge their 4.5 million customers in Ohio up to $1.50 a month—which comes to over $200,000 every day.

Those dollar figures—tens of millions to corrupt politicians, billions to companies that think they can buy their way out of financial troubles, huge amounts taken from citizens—are stunning on their own, even without getting into the way in which all this reportedly went down (and in a highly regulated industry to boot). The charges allege that the utilities companies were looking for ways to roll back climate policy changes, and charging the rate-paying general public turned out to be a convenient one. Paying off the politicians helped get that done.

The case, built on years of damning conversations recorded via hidden microphones planted by the FBI, has roiled Ohio politics for the last three years. Larry Householder was stripped of his speakership and expelled from office—the first lawmaker expelled from the statehouse in more than a century.

Adding to the bizarre ugliness of the scandal, Neil Clark, a powerful lobbyist defendant who liked to call himself the “Prince of Darkness,” died by suicide soon after being charged—a fact that did not stop his self-published tell-all book from coming out a few months later.

Oh—and there’s a Donald Trump angle, too.

Let’s dig in.

According to prosecutors, the money train got rolling with $60 million the utilities paid to “dark money” PACs to get H.B. 6, the bill benefiting them, passed. The cash rolled downhill to some Republican political leaders. Especially well positioned to push for the legislation was Householder, a longtime Ohio political player. According to the feds, the speaker got at least $400,000 himself, which he used to pay off credit cards and fix up his loft in Florida.

Householder’s defense team has said (more or less) that the $60 million payoff was just business as usual. “The federal government here oversteps its role in seeking to impose its standards of good government on Ohio,” they wrote in a motion to dismiss the case last year. “Even worse, the government does so by alleging that campaign contributions, which are protected by the First Amendment, formed an illegal bribe.”

The judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black, was having none of it: “The indictment sets forth the co-defendants’ concerted effort, working together as a cohesive structure, over time, to manipulate the legislative process, obtain and retain political power on behalf of defendant Householder, benefit financially, and obfuscate the nature of their activities.”

After the bailout bill was signed into law in 2019, it looked like its critics might succeed in getting it put up for a vote in a statewide referendum. This prompted the creation of what has been called “the sleaziest scare ad in recent memory”—a $20 million ad campaign that sent out postcards to voters warning “Don’t Give Your Personal Information to the Chinese Government” and aired  a TV ad stating “The Chinese government is quietly invading our electric grid,” as if Xi Jinping were amassing troops with extension cords off the shores of Lake Erie.

Householder’s codefendant Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said last year that he blames his predicament on Donald Trump:

My belief was Donald Trump didn’t deserve to be president of the United States anymore. I was well within my rights to express that belief and doing what I can to make sure that’s the case. Obviously, it was going to be not well received in the circles I had operated in for decades, but I understood that. But what was never even sort of on the radar for me was that they were going to send a political goon squad in to get me, so to speak. . . .

Thirty-one days after I launch a super PAC to beat the guy, the FBI shows up at my door and arrests me for something I didn’t do.

The judge, however, disagreed with Borges that he was “on the FBI’s radar because of Trump” and that such political disagreements were irrelevant to Borges’s guilt or innocence.

What will be relevant, though, to the case against Householder, Borges, et al. are some rather testy and threatening exchanges between Borges and a Republican political operative. Tyler Fehrman, a Columbus political lobbyist who had once worked for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said Borges wanted to meet with him about his support for the attempted referendum on H.B. 6. The FBI encouraged Fehrman to wear a wire and record their conversations, and one very odd one took place when they met in September 2019. This is what Fehrman told of the taped meeting:

Toward the end of the Sept. 13 meeting, Fehrman—who was again wearing an FBI wire—said Borges warned him, “You better not be screwing me” and that he hoped Fehrman was not secretly recording their meeting for the Columbus Dispatch.

Fehrman said he answered, “I’m not recording anything for the Dispatch.”

As the two were getting up to leave, Fehrman said Borges looked at him and said, “Seriously, though—if you’re [fuck]ing with me, we’ll blow up your house.”

The federal complaint states that Fehrman treated the comment as a joke. But Fehrman says he didn’t consider the remark funny at all.

“I remember getting in my car and just feeling my heart sink,” he said. “I played it off as a joke, but I was already scared—and that terrified me.”

As for the now deceased “Prince of Darkness,” Neil Clark, the powerful Columbus lobbyist who committed suicide in March 2021, an FBI informant had recorded him saying how they were offering people collecting signatures for the anti-utility referendum $2,500 to go home: “We have to go out on the corners and buy out their people every day. . . . If we knock off 25 people collecting signatures it virtually wipes them out in the next 20 days; this ends the whole fucking thing.”

Clark was charged in the case, but the charges were dropped after his suicide. He will be heard in court, however—thanks to his posthumously published memoir. “From the first day I walked into the Statehouse, it was already a corrupt, pay-to-play state, and, over 40 years later, I saw no saints,” Clark wrote. “All put power, self-interest and greed before the interest of Ohioans.”

Clark wrote in his book of the pain his family endured because his father—a mafia hired gun—spent most of Clark’s childhood in prison. Accordingly, when FBI agents told him that pleading guilty to a felony in the bribery case and doing some time was his best option, Clark walked out on them.

“One family member in prison was enough for me,” he wrote.

The trial is expected to last about six weeks.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.