Prosecutors say they have a text message sent from then-House Speaker Larry Householder seeking to pressure a fellow lawmaker to vote for a bill at the center of a criminal pay-to-play scheme — a text that an ally allegedly sought to get deleted.
However, the House of Representatives said Friday in response to a records request that the text could not be located from Householder’s phone as it was a “transient document” that did not need to be preserved.
Josh Sabo, deputy legal counsel for the House Speaker’s office, said House policy only requires “transient documents” to be preserved as long as they are of “administrative value.”
Householder, according to an FBI investigation, texted a male House Republican (only identified as “Representative 7”) on May 28, 2019 and pressured him to support House Bill 6, the beating heart of what prosecutors have called the largest bribery scheme in state political history.
“I really need you to vote yes on HB 6, it means a lot to me,” Householder allegedly said. “Can I count on you?”
Neil Clark, a powerful lobbyist who was charged alongside Householder, allegedly told “Representative 7” that Householder would quash the lawmaker’s unrelated legislation if he voted against House Bill 6, according to an 82-page affidavit from prosecutors. The legislation tacks fees on top of ratepayers’ bills in order to bail out two failing nuclear plants formerly owned by a former affiliate of FirstEnergy.
The bill also bailed out two coal plants, and rolled back renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, among other provisions.
Prosecutors allege FirstEnergy provided $61 million, through a political group serving as a middleman, for the defendants’ personal and political gain in order to obtain a bailout worth $1.3 billion.
After the vote, Householder’s political strategist Jeff Longstreth, through an intermediary, allegedly told “Representative 7” to delete all texts from Householder about the legislation. In exchange, all would be forgiven for his opposition, prosecutors say.
A grand jury indicted Householder, Clark, Longstreth, and lobbyists Juan Cespedes and Matt Borges on racketeering charges. Generation Now, the dark money entity allegedly used to deliver money from FirstEnergy to what prosecutors describe as “Householder’s enterprise,” was indicted as well. FirstEnergy has not been charged with a crime.
The charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
“Representative 7” provided screenshots of Householder’s text messages to FBI agents and assisted in their investigation both before and after the HB 6 vote. The agents included the screenshot in their charging documents filed against Householder.
In an interview on the House floor earlier this month, Householder, who has been indicted and pleaded not guilty, said he did not know the identity of Representative 7.
“I might have assumptions, but I’m not going to get into those,” he said.
Householder has been ordered against contacting any potential government witnesses.
Ohio’s public records laws prohibit unauthorized destruction of records, except as allowed by records retention schedules, “as a means of preventing the circumvention of the Public Records Act,” according to guidance from the Attorney General’s office.
“Transient” refers to “documents that serve to convey information of temporary importance,” per the House policy. Examples cited by the attorney general include voicemails, telephone message slips, post-it notes and superseded drafts.
If the texts qualified as “general correspondence,” they would need to be preserved for the entirety of the General Assembly, which wraps up at the end of the year.
Sabo did not respond when asked who designated the text as a “transient document.”
Steven Bradley, a criminal defense attorney representing Householder, declined to answer written inquiries including whether Householder deleted the text message.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney David Devillers did not respond to inquiries, including whether prosecutors have obtained the text from Householder’s phone.
The House has voted to remove Householder as Speaker, but the Republican majority voted against a proposal to expel him from his seat in the General Assembly. Republicans have since elected Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, as Speaker.
The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Timothy Black, who was appointed to the bench in 2009 by President Barack Obama.
This story has been corrected to reflect that FirstEnergy no longer owns the two nuclear plants bailed out via HB 6.