Ohio Republican infighting drama continues as lawsuit filed against House speaker

Speaker Stephens is unlawfully spending campaign money, the lawsuit alleges

By: - October 11, 2023 10:54 am

OHRA Chair Phil Plummer, left, has filed a lawsuit against Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, right. (Photos by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal.)

The ongoing saga of Republican infighting in the Ohio House has led to the Speaker being sued by his rivals.

Republican State Reps. Ron Ferguson (Wintersville), Derek Merrin (Monclova), Phil Plummer (Dayton) and the Ohio House Republican Alliance (OHRA) have filed a lawsuit against Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), state Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Twp.), treasurer of OHRA J. Matthew Yuskewich and Winterset CPA Group, Inc.

This controversy is about who is in control of the money inside the House GOP campaign fund.

Stephens believes he is in control of it, however, Plummer and Merrin believe they are in control since they are the chair and vice-chair of OHRA.

The plaintiffs allege that “Speaker Stephens has interfered with the administration of the OHRA fund and is missing funds to bolster his own position as Speaker.”

In short, the anti-Stephens squad is asking for Franklin County Judge Mark Serrott:

  1. Declare that Plummer and Merrin have the sole authority to control OHRA and its finances. All funds spent by Stephens must be personally reimbursed to OHRA.
  2. Stephens and LaRe must give the plaintiffs, House GOP members and all other candidates “harmed by the unauthorized use of OHRA funds for damages in excess of $100,000 plus attorneys’ fees.”

Despite having a dominant supermajority, Ohio Republicans don’t — or rather can’t — use it.

The House GOP is completely divided due to the speakership “coup” that happened in January. The Republican caucus had previously chosen Merrin as their speaker months before the full House vote.

Twenty-two Republicans (known “affectionately” by the other faction as the “Blue 22”) voted for Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) for speaker during the actual vote, while the majority of Republicans voted for state Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova). Stephens, still a conservative, is more moderate than Merrin.

The anti-Stephens faction has been relentless in fighting Stephens at every opportunity. Stephens has had to rely on Democrats, the majority of the lawmakers who voted for him as speaker, to get some of his work done — like passing the House rules.

Following the speakership vote, the Republican caucus voted for Plummer to be chair and for Merrin to be co-chair of OHRA.

The anti-Stephens squad argued for months about OHRA with Stephens and his team, and after negotiations, “a tentative arrangement was discussed,” the lawsuit continued.

That arrangement would allow Plummer and LaRe to serve as co-chairs, according to a press release from April. However, no funds could be spent without the approval of both members.

Despite this tentative agreement, Stephens “reneged” on it, and started spending funds without Plummer’s say, the lawsuit said.

“Stephens continues to defy the vote of the Republican Caucus,” the document said.

The semiannual report from July shows that about $285,000 has been spent from the OHRA fund. The entirety of that money was not authorized by Plummer, the lawsuit said.

Plummer, Merrin, and Ferguson are also going after the treasurer because he is aiding the “unlawful interference,” according to the lawsuit.

The anti-Stephens group is being represented by Lisa Ferguson, the mother of Rep. Ferguson.

“Today, the Ohio House Republican Alliance, through its elected leaders Representatives Phil Plummer and Derek Merrin, as well as caucus member Representative Ron Ferguson, filed suit in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to enforce the requirements of Ohio law as it relates to the appropriate administration of the caucus campaign committee,” Lisa Ferguson told WEWS/OCJ. “The Complaint speaks for itself, and the plaintiffs will not discuss pending litigation in the media at this time.”

Stephens and LaRe gave a joint statement:

“Frankly, this lawsuit is nothing more than the desperate antics of a handful of self-promoting individuals who seem to be more interested in filing baseless lawsuits than they are in defeating Issue 1 to protect innocent lives and defend our conservative family values.

We find it convenient that after the hard work of our Republican colleagues raising significant funds, drawing unanimously approved maps, and passing one of the most conservative budgets where we lowered income taxes for hard-working Ohioans and streamlined taxes for businesses, the only thing they have managed to do is to file this lawsuit.

Their actions amount to nothing but a petty distraction from the real work being done to support the well-being of their fellow Ohioans and the Republican Party they claim to represent.”

This 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.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.



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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.