Householder trial: Millions in dark money used to call dark money “dirty”

By: - February 1, 2023 5:11 pm

Rep. Larry Householder is seen in a campaign advertisement from 2018. Screenshot from YouTube.

CINCINNATI — In politics, logical and moral consistency often aren’t the highest priorities. That was starkly true in the 2018 campaign to make then-Rep. Larry Householder speaker in the legislative session that would begin the following January, according to evidence presented in federal court on Wednesday.

Householder is accused of racketeering in a scheme to use $61 million in utility company contributions to elect a legislature that would elect him speaker and pass a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of failing nuclear and coal plants. At the time of his arrest in 2020, federal prosecutors said it was likely the biggest bribery and money-laundering scandal in the long history of public corruption in Ohio.

In 2016, a financially struggling Householder was running for his old Perry County House seat with an eye toward regaining the speaker’s gavel two years later. At the same time, Akron-based FirstEnergy was losing so much on its nuclear-and-coal-plant subsidiary that it was starting a process that would ultimately send it into bankruptcy. Prosecutors have suggested that the ratepayer subsidies made them easier to spin off.

Householder and the company’s executives quickly formed a relationship that appears to have been formalized on a joint trip to Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump’s January, 2017 inaugural during which they flew on private jets and enjoyed a series of fancy meals.

Just a few weeks later, two Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) “dark money” groups were founded — including one by a FirstEnergy lobbyist who would later become Gov. Mike DeWine’s governmental affairs director. Shortly thereafter, what would become tens of millions of FirstEnergy dollars started to flow into and between them, and becoming dark money in the process.

In U.S. District Court on Wednesday, federal prosecutors laid out in stupefying detail how the dollars traveled through the dark money groups, Generation Now and Partners for Progress, and into political action committees and limited liability companies with names like Hardworking Americans and Hardworking Ohioans. 

Dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors and in her opening statement last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter said the entire point of sending the dollars on such a tortuous journey was to make them hard to trace. But on the stand, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel explained how he used subpoenaed bank statements, extracted text messages, emails and wiretaps to do so.

Wetzel testified that in early 2018, Householder was working to get a slate of House candidates through the May Republican Primary. The hope was also to get them through the November General Election, so they could vote to make him speaker the following January.

Glatfelter walked Wetzel through how dark money originating with FirstEnergy eventually ended up being spent on campaign ads. One, against Householder’s primary opponent, went after him for taking dark money.

In other words, dark money was being used to slam the use of dark money.

It slammed Kevin Black for “dirty money, dirty politics” over the funding — and because he had been supported by former Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenburger, who had been the object of an FBI investigation.

The latter criticism could seem ironic, given that Householder himself became the object of an FBI investigation in 2004 during his first stint as speaker.

But consistency and avoiding hypocrisy hardly seemed to be the point in a March 2018 wiretapped phone conversation between Householder and political consultant Neil Clark. The consultant was also charged in the case, but he died by suicide in 2021.

Referring to the ad attacking Black, Householder said, “I kind of like the word ‘dark’ because it means black.”

Wetzel, the FBI agent, also described a TV ad funded with Householder-controlled dark money that attacked Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, a Democrat running against a member of “Team Householder” in the 2018 General Election.

The ad showed police cam video of Foley, who said he was stopped for speeding and that he passed a field sobriety test. The ad, however, said Foley had failed several tests and that he was “just another corrupt politician.” 

It closed by saying “We can’t trust Drunk Dan Foley,” the Dayton Daily News reported at the time.

Householder’s own epic corruption trial resumes Thursday and is expected to last until March.

Political operative Juan Cespedes, who has pleaded guilty, is expected to testify after Wetzel’s testimony is complete.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.