Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose talks to reporters. (Photo by Susan Tebben, OCJ.)
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says a constitutional amendment he’s pushing would prevent aspects of the largest bribery and money laundering scandal in state history.
But on Tuesday, he said he didn’t recall conversations with some of the conspiracy’s central figures when it reached a fever pitch in 2019. He also hasn’t produced any evidence — despite his recent statements — that he spoke up against the corrupt deal or its ringleader before the ringleader’s arrest in July 2020.
LaRose met with reporters after a debate at NBC4 WCMH in Columbus over the merits of Issue 1, a measure on the Aug. 8 ballot that would make it a lot harder for voters to initiate amendments to the Ohio Constitution.
It would make it much more difficult for voters to put an amendment on the ballot without making it any harder for Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature to do so. Issue 1 would also raise the threshold to pass an amendment from the current 50% to 60% regardless of who initiated it.
The measure would radically alter a reform-era measure advocated by former President Theodore Roosevelt 111 years ago at Ohio’s Constitutional Convention.
LaRose and his Republican allies in the gerrymandered legislature say Issue 1 is needed to protect the state Constitution from nefarious outside influences. But critics say they’re just trying to block amendments they don’t like — most prominently ones protecting abortion rights and attempting to curb extreme gerrymandering of Ohio’s legislative and congressional districts.
Experts have said that the state’s gerrymandering contributes to public corruption by perpetuating unaccountable, one-party rule. And when it comes to corruption, Ohio state government has certainly had its struggles in recent years.
But LaRose has argued that Issue 1 would prevent an aspect of an ongoing scandal that has engulfed Capitol Square at least since the FBI arrested then House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, and several others in July 2020. In it, Akron-based FirstEnergy poured more than $60 million into dark money groups to make Householder speaker and pass and protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout, most of which was intended for FirstEnergy.
In late June, Householder was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for racketeering, and former state GOP Chairman Matt Borges was sentenced to five years.
In an April op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch and again in a radio interview in late June, LaRose argued that Issue 1 would thwart Householder’s plan late in the scandal to use utility money to pass a constitutional amendment that would alter the state’s term limits so Householder could stay speaker for another 16 years.
LaRose hasn’t explained how making it harder for voters to initiate a constitutional amendment relative to the legislature would stop the speaker of the House from initiating and passing one. The only higher hurdle Householder would have faced is getting 60% of the vote — a goal more achievable for a corrupt lawmaker supported by tens of millions in dark money from interested utilities than it would be for a group of like-minded voters.
And until Tuesday, LaRose hasn’t commented on his role in the scandal.
His name came up several times during Householder’s six-week trial earlier this year. And messages by some of the central players suggested that LaRose — the state’s top elections official — was at least talking to them about it.
The bailout was so unpopular that dark-money groups ran ads giving lawmakers “cover” to vote for it. And when it passed, groups almost immediately started gathering signatures for a repeal — a “citizen veto” one of the assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting Householder called it.
As head of the Ohio Ballot Board, LaRose had a role in the repeal election and Borges, the now-convicted former GOP chairman, claimed at the time to be in talks with the secretary of the state about the repeal effort.
“LaRose is expecting us to be publicly supportive of him,” Borges said, according to messages displayed during the trial.
Borges said LaRose expected to be called on to recuse himself because of claimed conflicts of interest. LaRose ended up approving the language on the repeal petition.
Prosecutors also presented a text message from then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones to the executive of an associated company as the battle to gather signatures for a repeal reached a fever pitch. Together, the companies spent more than $36 million to successfully block the repeal effort by running false, xenophobic ads and by hiring people to harass those who were circulating petitions.
Jones hasn’t been charged in the scandal, but in court papers, his attorneys have said he’s a subject of the ongoing investigation.
In his text message, Jones said LaRose and Householder had been providing the FirstEnergy CEO with “private” information on the drive to gather signatures to put a repeal of the crooked bailout on the ballot. LaRose gave the utility moguls reason to be optimistic, Jones said.
“For what it’s worth, LaRose and Householder think it’s game over,” Jones told the other executive. “But that is a private conversation unless they’ve told you the same thing. And Householder has a ‘quick fix’ anyway.”
In any event, the game was over. The repeal effort died shortly thereafter.
Asked on Tuesday what he was discussing with the FirstEnergy CEO at the height of the scandal, LaRose called it an “interesting question.” Then he reverted to his claims in his Dispatch op-ed that Issue 1 would have stopped Householder’s plan to become “speaker for life.”
Then LaRose said, “I don’t remember every conversation I’ve had. I can tell you this, a lot of names come up in court cases like that. I haven’t done anything that has even been insinuated by anyone that was improper as it relates to that.”
Asked a second time what he discussed with Jones, LaRose said, “Again, I don’t recall every conversation I’ve ever had. And sometimes, the CEOs of companies like to brag about, ‘Oh, I’ve talked to this person,’ or ‘I’ve talked to that person.’ I don’t recall having any specific conversation with Jones or anybody else at that company at that point and again, I don’t know exactly what he’s even talking about.”
In June, just a day before Householder was sentenced in Cincinnati, LaRose appeared on the radio there to say he’d been an opponent of Householder all along.
“I mean the guy turned out to be a crook,” LaRose told 700 WLW’s Scott Sloan. “And that shouldn’t have surprised anybody, by the way — anybody that knew him.”
After Tuesday’s debate, LaRose was asked whether he ever publicly condemned Householder or the bailout conspiracy while it was taking place.
“Oh yeah,” the state’s top election official said. “You know the guy was as crooked as can be and had been in his first term as speaker and was run out and then came back again. The folks in the House who decided to make him speaker should have known that.”
Asked for evidence that he spoke out during the racketeering conspiracy that culminated in House Bill 6, LaRose responded, “Against House Bill 6, or against Householder as a speaker?”
Asked if the two weren’t one and the same, LaRose said. “Well sure. But I said very publicly that Householder is not a great guy. I don’t know what else you’re looking for.”
His office hasn’t provided any evidence that LaRose spoke up against the former speaker or the bailout as misleading ads financed by its sponsors flooded Ohio’s airways — and during the time that one of its main sponsors claimed he was getting “private” petition information from LaRose.
A Google search on Wednesday did turn up action that LaRose took against Householder — on the day he was arrested. That’s when he referred 19 “apparent or alleged violations” of campaign finance laws by Householder to the Ohio Elections Commission, WCPO in Cincinnati reported.
LaRose on Tuesday said it hadn’t “even been insinuated by anyone” that he’d done anything improper in the bailout scandal. But during Borges’ sentencing — just two days after LaRose went on the radio and said that everybody knew Householder was a crook — one of the prosecutors in the racketeering case insinuated in open court that somebody had acted improperly.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer decried the fact that the corrupt bailout law is still on the books and that many of the uncharged players in the racketeering scandal continue to thrive on Capitol Square.
And he said, “It’s interesting that some people are piling on (Householder) after the fact. 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.”
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