‘Unholy alliance’ — Chaotic first day of Larry Householder corruption trial

By: - January 24, 2023 8:42 am

Larry Householder addresses reporters after lawmakers voted to expel him from the General Assembly. He has pleaded not guilty to a racketeering charge and awaits trial. Photo by Jake Zuckerman, OCJ.

The following article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.

 

CINCINNATI — The chaotic opening statements on Monday in the largest public corruption trial in Ohio history led to the federal prosecutors accusing former Speaker of the Ohio House Larry Householder of selling the Statehouse, defense attorneys saying the government was wrong and the judge being “appalled.”

Householder is accused of accepting a nearly $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation to bail out FirstEnergy, also known as House Bill 6.

The public is beginning to learn how and why FirstEnergy paid the millions to the nonprofit Generation Now, which Householder allegedly controlled. The speaker is accused of working with former GOP leader Matt Borges and at least three others to pass a billion-dollar bailout for the struggling nuclear power company. This $1.3 billion bailout led to raised electricity rates and had Ohioans paying for fossil fuel power plants, including one outside the state.

Both men pleaded not guilty.

Householder and Borges were two of five people arrested back in 2020. House operative Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes both pleaded guilty in the case. Longtime lobbyist Neil Clark died by suicide in his Florida home after pleading not guilty to racketeering.

News 5 sat down with former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Brien to dissect the first day. O’Brien is now a trial lawyer and specializes in white-collar criminal defense.

Opening statements — Prosecution

Starting around 10:15 a.m., Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter began her opening statement.

“Larry Householder sold the Statehouse,” Glatfelter said. “He ripped off the people he was elected to serve.”

But he didn’t act alone, she said. She explained who the other four alleged coconspirators are.

Borges was the “middle man.” Clark was as the “trusted confidant” and “Householder’s proxy.” Longstreth was the “right-hand man.” Cespedes worked with FirstEnergy Solutions to get the bailout passed.

Householder needed “casket carriers,” people loyal to him without question, she added. His eyes were set on power, Glatfelter said.

For the next 60 minutes, the prosecutor outlined how Householder and FirstEnergy, in addition to their followers, worked together to line their pockets.

Over the course of a year, FirstEnergy cozied up enough with Householder and started sending him $250,000 quarterly, she said.

The money, bouncing between dark money entities, ended up paying for a myriad of items: Householder’s rent, credit card debt, repairs and renovations to a house in Florida and paying off a lawsuit.

There are allegedly recordings of the defendants trying to bribe people, which O’Brien said will be hard to overcome.

“Prosecution always has a huge advantage at the start of the case,” he said, seemingly foreshadowing the following openings. “You’ve really got to be good to jump on a moving train like this.”

More money funneled in over the months, and Householder soon relied on his “bank,” or FirstEnergy, Glatfelter said.

Once H.B. 6 was passed, citizens attempted to pass a referendum to repeal the bill. This is when a harassment and bribery campaign took place by the Householder Team, she added. Borges paid a $15,000 bribe for insider information but seemingly failed anyway.

The men also tried to convince Attorney General Dave Yost, who is set to testify as a witness for the prosecution, to deny the referendum language. Yost rejected this “advice,” the attorney said.

The man he tried to bribe gave the check to the FBI. This was one of the ways the government was tipped off to the scheme. The other was via a wiretap. FBI had tapped into lobbyist Neil Clark — related to “another scheme” in late 2018 and early 2019 — and picked up conversations with Householder.

The government has evidence that Borges said everyone was getting rich off of the scheme, Glatfelter said.

They were “part of an unholy alliance,” she said, sharing that quote came from Borges.

Soon enough, Householder wanted more power, she said. He already had millions in his account, but he now wanted to put forward a ballot issue that would allow him to remain speaker for 16 more years.

She has all the evidence she needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that both men are guilty, she added.

Opening statements — Householder

Householder’s attorney Steven Bradley said “the government’s got it wrong here,” arguing that the money came from political campaign contributions, not bribery.

Millions of dollars in contributions were used to support the political campaign of about 20 or so Republican candidates that were running for open seats in the Ohio House, the attorney said.

“None of these political contributions were made in exchange for an explicit promise,” Bradley said.

The Householder Team is arguing that the money received was from campaign contributions, and the money was received legally under Ohio law and doesn’t fall under the bribery statute, O’Brien said.

“It’s not that they’re quibbling with the factual allegations,” the former DOJ prosecutor said. “They’re saying these allegations, even if they can prove them, are not enough under the statute.”

Plus, Householder supported the bailout because he knows the importance of nuclear power plants and the jobs they provide to communities, Bradley added.

To explain the personal benefits Householder paid for, Bradley said it came from a loan from Longstreth.

Opening statements — Borges

Attorney Todd Long started off his opening by trying to remove the ties between Borges and Householder.

The pair were “political rivals” and “didn’t really like each other,” the attorney said.

If an alleged scheme took place by Householder, Borges had no idea, since he wasn’t on the Householder Team and there will be documents to prove that.

“It’s probably a smart tactic if they sense Householder is the real bad guy, which is what the government probably believes,” O’Brien said on Borges trying to distance himself.

In regard to potentially bribing a ballot worker, Long said that he and the worker were actually very close friends — and the money was given to deal with family and financial issues.

Chaos

While Glatfelter had been speaking, murmurs could be heard throughout the courtroom. She stopped her opening and spoke to Judge Timothy Black about the defense being distracting.

Black was just about to “admonish” the defense for their behavior, he said. He told them to behave professionally.

After lunch, Black spoke to the court. He was “appalled” by the behavior of the defense, he said. Householder’s attorneys had been making faces, clicking pens and talking during the prosecutor’s opening.

“It’s unprofessional,” the judge said. “It’s bush league.”

The judge continued to scold, threatening to move all but one of the attorneys to the gallery.

When explaining the events to O’Brien, he looked shocked, but also laughed.

“Listen, these optics matter, even though they’re not really talking about the evidence yet,” he said. “These guys are trying to turn it into a circus.”

This could leave a lasting impression on the jury, even if the defense attorneys are the greatest cross-examiners in the world, he added.

It was unclear whether Householder’s attorney was ill-prepared or purposely meandering during his opening statement. Black commented numerous times for Bradley to get to the point.

“Are we going to get to the evidence?” Black asked, once Bradley spent 15 minutes talking about how Householder grew up on a farm and explained his young adult life.

Bradley, seemingly ignoring this request, continued on with Householder’s early career. However, he seemed to skip over the section in which the former lawmaker was investigated by the FBI for another concern in the early 2000s, which derailed his political career for some years. No charges came from that investigation.

Black, already annoyed from earlier, told the defense he was not going to argue with him, and that he should just proceed.

The judge could be seen sighing.

News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau will be in Cincinnati covering the trial. Previous coverage of the scandal is can be found below:

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Morgan Trau
Morgan Trau

Morgan Trau is a political reporter and multimedia journalist based out of the WEWS Columbus Bureau. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Trau has previously worked as an investigative, political and fact-checking reporter in Grand Rapids, Mich. at WZZM-TV; a reporter and MMJ in Spokane, Wash. at KREM-TV and has interned at 60 Minutes and worked for CBS Interactive and PBS NewsHour.

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