More indictments ‘likely’ in Householder bribery scandal, legal expert says
Larry Householder speaks after guilty verdict. Photo by: WEWS/WCPO.
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.
As former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder awaits sentencing for his role in selling out the Statehouse, members of his team debate whether or not they will be indicted as well.
He and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges were found guilty in a nearly $61 million scheme to pass a nuclear bailout bill, House Bill 6, at the expense of taxpayers and at the benefit of their pockets.
“I’m not guilty,” Householder exclaimed Thursday to reporters following his guilty verdict.
A court of his peers inside the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati begged to differ. In about nine hours, 12 jurors decided that Householder and Borges, beyond a reasonable doubt, participated in the largest public corruption case in state history, a racketeering scheme that left four men guilty and another dead by suicide.
FirstEnergy, the briber, confessed before the trial began that the legislation would provide a $1.3 billion bailout to help its failing corporation. Two coconspirators, Jeff Longstreth and Juan Cespedes, also pleaded guilty before the trial started. Neil Clark, a longtime GOP lobbyist, committed suicide outside his Florida home after pleading not guilty.
“We have a team in our office that will be relentless and that will hold you accountable,” U.S. Attorney Ken Parker said following the verdict.
Parker wouldn’t answer when asked about future indictments, but Case Western Reserve University criminal law professor Michael Benza thinks it is very “likely.”
“I would not be surprised if we see several more indictments,” Benza said. “There were a lot of people who were talked about in this case; there were a lot of people who weren’t talked about who we all know were players in this entire process.”
Householder’s campaign finance attorney Scott Pullins, who is still currently on the convicted felon’s payroll, doesn’t think it will be him, he told OCJ/WEWS Monday.
“I was involved with a lot of stuff that the events that occurred… during this,” Pullins said in an interview before the verdict. “Larry has never asked me to lie.”
Speaking about his relationship with Householder, the lawyer defended the former speaker for the entirety of the interview, blaming judicial bias and the FBI unfairly targeting his friend.
“If the federal government goes in and taps my phone… they’re probably going to, if they listen long enough, hear some dumb stuff, some stupid stuff and probably some stuff we would feel embarrassed to hear in a courtroom,” Pullins said about audio of Householder threatening lawmakers’ children.
He was upset he didn’t get to testify in front of the jury, as he had asked the defense if he could and even interviewed with them, he said.
Householder’s ties to Pullins
Along with being a client and a legal advisor, Pullins was paid by JPL and Associates, Longstreth’s consulting firm.
The FBI found, and Longstreth admitted, that Householder’s non-profit Generation Now, which was funded by FirstEnergy bribes, was the pot of money the team was dipping into. To break this down further, JPL used Generation Now funds to pay Pullins for complimentary coverage of the nuclear bailout.
“I was working for 3rd Rail Politics,” the lawyer said, unprompted. “Part of my job with JPL was to research, write and get placed articles, columns, different sites.”
3rd Rail Politics was a Householder-friendly blog that existed through 2018, but was pulled down around the time the now-convict became speaker of the Ohio House.
“I would have been paid either by 3rd Rail Politics or by JPL,” Pullins added.
When asked if he was being paid to speak to OCJ/WEWS’s Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau, Pullins said he could be, but “hadn’t planned” on billing for it.
In his reports, which are now only available through screenshots and archive searches, he negatively covered Householder’s speaker opponent Ryan Smith. This follows months of reporting on Smith’s predecessor Cliff Rosenberger.
A few days after the interview took place, on Monday, Pullins backtracked and said JPL asked him to look into Smith, but “can’t recall” if he was explicitly paid to write about him.
“I’ll have to look back… Did I reach out the folks there and… look for information… as sources and things like that? Yeah,” Pullins said when asked a third time for a direct answer about whether he was paid using Generation Now funds to write about Smith. “But as far as being directed or asked… I can’t recall anything like that.”
As part of his employment at 3rd Rail, he had to sign a nondisclosure for his boss Cyndy Rees, he said, when asked about why he couldn’t go into more details.
Benza said this could be cause for concern.
“The government, I am sure, is looking at all of those kinds of public media campaigns to see if they traced that back to Householder or trace it back to FirstEnergy and make it all part of this conspiracy,” Benza said.
The difficulty for defendants and for the government in terms of proof is that a conspiracy tends to get its tendrils into everything, he said.
“Doing contrary research into an opponent, having supporters put things out into social media — again, even in of itself — is not going to be the crime,” Benza said. “It’s going to find those connections that make the people doing that part of the conspiracy that make them in trouble with the federal law.”
All that being said, Pullins is not the likely target, Benza added.
Who could be next
Chuck Jones, former CEO of FirstEnergy, Tony George, Cleveland businessman, and Sam Randazzo, the former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, are likely suspects, Benza said.
“Certainly the people in the hierarchy of FirstEnergy and the hierarchy of the political activists that are surrounding this case are probably next on the list for the government’s indictments or the government’s further investigation,” he said.
OCJ/WEWS reached out to several close political friends of Householder, who are current lawmakers, and is awaiting responses on if they feel they could be indicted.
It may take months to get to sentencing, and even after that, it could be months until the defendants get assigned to their prisons, Benza said.
“The state system has lots of places to put people, the federal system does not,” the professor added. “Just logistically, those are barriers.”
Householder and Borges are both facing up to 20 years for the racketeering charge, but Householder could get more.
“There is the ability of a judge to enhance within the guidelines to find that a defendant has been untruthful during the proceedings, and that does often happen” he said. “I also think that the judge is probably inclined to sentence it to high range, given the magnitude of what happened in this case, not just the money that was involved, which is astronomical, but also the violation of the public trust.”
But Householder may have a way to lessen his sentence, which includes bringing the whole farm down with him. There is a specific provision in the federal sentencing guidelines that allows for defendants to cooperate post-conviction.
“It’s very possible that both Householder and or Borges will be talking to the government about how to get that sentencing decreased by helping them,” Benza added.
Householder and Borges both said they are planning appeals.
Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.
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