LaRose said Issue 1 would help prevent corruption. But it could make it even worse

By: - July 19, 2023 5:00 am

In 2022, Secretary of State Frank LaRose (speaking) alongside Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Ashville, introducing a constitutional amendment requiring a 60% supermajority for all future citizen-led ballot amendments. (Photo by Nick Evans, OCJ.)

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has claimed that a proposal to make it much harder to pass citizen-initiated amendments to the Ohio Constitution would have prevented an aspect of the biggest bribery scandal in state history. 

But LaRose, who announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate on Monday, has refused to discuss his own role in the scandal. And there’s good reason to believe that despite his claims, Issue 1 could make Ohio state government even more corrupt than it already is. 

That’s because the measure would make it difficult — if not impossible — for voters to pass stronger anti-gerrymandering amendments. That likely would enshrine one-party rule in Ohio, and that has been linked to public corruption around the world, an expert told the Capital Journal.

“There’s a strong correlation between one-party rule and political corruption,” said University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus. “Part of the reason is that once you get that power, you can manipulate the levers of power to keep that power.”

The measure LaRose is championing would gut a good-government reform advocated in 1912 by former President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s intended to give voters direct power in the face of a state government that might be “an instrument for the protection of privilege and of vested wrong” while ignoring the will of the voters.

The existing measure sets a high bar for voters to get a proposed amendment before voters. For example, proponents of an abortion-rights measure likely to be on the November ballot had to gather more than 400,000 verified voter signatures and a portion of them had to be from each of 44 counties. Once enough signatures are verified, the measure will go on the ballot and if it wins a simple majority, it will become part of the Ohio Constitution.

The measure being pushed by LaRose and Republican supermajorities in Ohio’s legislature would make it far more difficult and expensive — critics say almost impossible — for voters to put an amendment on the ballot by requiring that a portion of signatures come from each of Ohio’s 88 counties, no matter how rural. Meanwhile, the state’s gerrymandered legislature would face no extra burden in placing amendments it wants on the ballot.

Regardless of how a proposed amendment makes its way onto the ballot, Issue 1 would raise the percentage of votes needed for passage from 50% to 60%. However, the measure LaRose and legislative Republicans put on the Aug. 8 ballot would only need 50% of the vote to become part of the Ohio Constitution.

Corrupt bargain

LaRose and his allies have claimed that Issue 1 is needed to stop powerful special interests from meddling in Ohio’s Constitution. But that implies that the legislature is somehow less vulnerable to those forces than are the voters. Seemingly contradicting that claim is that the “yes” side of the fight over Issue 1 has received $1 million from an election-denying Illinois billionaire.

Issue 1 would give Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature more power relative to voters. But its vulnerability to special interests was laid out in excruciating detail earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. In the trial, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and former GOP Chairman Matt Borges were convicted of racketeering and sentenced to 20 years and five years in federal prison, respectively. 

Both helped conduct a scheme in which FirstEnergy and other Ohio utilities paid more than $60 million through 501(c)(4) groups — first to elect friendly Republicans in 2018 to make Householder speaker in early 2019, then to pass a an unpopular, $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout benefiting the utilities, and then to wage a brutal, dishonest campaign to defeat a citizen-initiated repeal. And, because the funding came in the form of dark money, the public couldn’t be sure at the time where it was coming from.

LaRose has claimed that if it were in place, Issue 1 would have stopped one aspect of the Householder conspiracy. 

In early 2020 — after passage of the corrupt bailout and before his arrest — Householder raised millions from Ohio utilities into a dark money group. The plan was to put an amendment on the ballot that would change Ohio’s term limits so that Householder could conceivably stay speaker for another 16 years.

“Just remember that Larry Householder and FirstEnergy almost got away with a scheme to amend our constitution and keep control of the Statehouse for 16 more years. Imagine what they could have done,” LaRose wrote in The Columbus Dispatch in April.

That ignores, however, that as speaker under Issue 1, it would have been much easier for Householder to pass a proposed amendment through the gerrymandered legislature’s supermajority than it would be for a voters group to gather and verify nearly a half-million signatures — including a portion from each of Ohio’s 88 counties. And, because Householder likely would have had tens of millions in secret utility dollars supporting his effort, he’d have a better chance of clearing the 60% hurdle to pass the amendment on Election Day.

Meanwhile, LaRose’s office has ignored multiple questions about his own involvement in the bailout scandal. The secretary of state was mentioned in several communications presented during the racketeering trial. In one, then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones said LaRose was giving him “private” updates on the status of the repeal effort, which FirstEnergy and a subsidiary spent more than $40 million to stop.

LaRose appeared late last month on Cincinnati radio and said that everybody knew during the racketeering conspiracy that Householder was “a crook.” But in open court two days later, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys in the racketeering case said, “It’s interesting that some people are piling on (Householder) after the fact,” he said. “So many knew what was happening in real time and did nothing about it. Not only did they do nothing about it, they helped facilitate it.”

Culture of corruption

As Householder and Borges were sentenced, that prosecutor and another decried the fact that Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature is yet to repeal the corrupt bailout law, House Bill 6. 

The subsidies going to the major player, FirstEnergy, have ended. But AEP helped support the scheme and it’s the biggest player in a consortium that owns two coal plants that continue to be propped up with hundreds of millions in ratepayer subsidies from HB 6.

Those are far from the only recent scandals plaguing Ohio government:

  • Between 2000 and 2016, Ohio paid Bill Lager more than $1 billion to run an online charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. Lager, a bankrupt furniture salesman, sketched out his plan on a Waffle House napkin and sold it to Ohio’s Republican leadership, to whom he became a big campaign contributor. Problem was, ECOT was supplying the government with a lot of phony data while doing little more than making sure kids were logging on to their computers once a day. The scheme has since collapsed and not much has been done to help the then-kids who were effectively robbed of an education.
  • One of Householder’s predecessors as speaker, Cliff Rosenberger, a Republican from Clinton County, resigned in 2018 amid an FBI investigation into his lavish spending and travel. He hasn’t been arrested or charged.
  • Between 2021 and last fall, the Republican controlled Ohio Redistricting Commission ignored seven orders by the state Supreme Court to redraw legislative and congressional districts so they complied with constitutional amendments against extreme gerrymandering. Both amendments have been passed since 2015 with more than 70% of the vote. But when former Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, a Republican, voted with the court’s three Democrats to strike down the commission’s districts, it ran out the clock and the districts now in use are technically unconstitutional. Instead of complying with the court’s orders, LaRose and other Republicans considered whether O’Connor should be impeached and they removed her portrait from the state’s GOP headquarters. Now that she’s out of office, O’Connor is advocating for a new, more foolproof amendment against gerrymandering — a measure that seems anathema to supporters of Issue 1.

Whichever party

During the interview in which LaRose called Householder a crook, the secretary of state ignored a question about whether one-party rule was a recipe for corruption — regardless of the party exercising it. The interviewer, 700WLW’s Scott Sloan, had a point.

In Democratic-dominated El Paso, Texas, the FBI conducted a sprawling public-corruption investigation that by 2014 resulted in 39 criminal convictions, including those of several public officials. 

Blue-controlled Illinois has long been a punchline for jokes about public corruption. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Barack Obama. And the state’s former Democratic House Speaker, Michael Madigan, has been indicted in a utility scandal similar to Ohio’s, although it involves much less money.

And the Brown Law Review in January published a report saying that gerrymandered districts in deep-blue Los Angeles are causing “rot” at the local level.

“The rot emerging from the city’s government is a consequence of unfair, biased, and opaque redistricting processes at the local level,” the article said. “Local level gerrymandering — whether it be city council or county commission districts — contributes to corruption and deserves more discussion vis-à-vis gerrymandering at the state and federal level.”

Rottinghaus, of the University of Houston, said it isn’t hard to understand the relationship between gerrymandering, one-party rule and corruption. When elections are competitive, parties have a strong incentive to avoid corruption scandals, he said, because voter anger could cost them at the ballot box. Rottinghaus also explained that the founders didn’t envision the concentration of power caused by gerrymandering when they drew up the U.S. Constitution.

“The framers of the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions expected that the balance of power would hold and if you diversify the types of power, you can limit the possibility that any one group will be able to control the state,” said Rottinghaus, who works in a state whose chief law enforcement officer stands accused of epic corruption. “In Texas, where you’ve got every branch of government controlled by one party, there’s little hope that you’re going to find any deviance from what the party wants.”



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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.