Commentary: Householder's conviction sends a loud-and-clear message to Ohio politicians
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder would be waltzing about without a care in the world, enjoying the sunshine in his refurbished Florida home, had it not been for the U.S. District Attorney of Southern Ohio.
Ohio law to stop the kind of rampant corruption and bribery seen in the Householder case is either non-existent or so toothless and full of loopholes so as to be meaningless.
Little wonder people of Householder's ilk think they can thumb their noses at the people of Ohio and believe they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. And get away with it.
Federal prosecutors did what they had to do — prosecute Householder under the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the same law that has been putting Mafia capos behind prison bars for years.
"RICO is a law with teeth; charges brought under RICO are hard to prove, but it worked well in this case," said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law. "Most people don't understand RICO, but the jury in this case did."
Last week, a jury in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Timothy Black took only nine hours to review a complex case and come to the conclusion that Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges were guilty of racketeering for their parts in a $60 million bribery case.
It was the largest public corruption case in the 220-year history of Ohio. Both men will appeal; and both face up to 20 years in prison.
The case was all about House Bill 6, the legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly in 2019 to bail out two nuclear power plants owned by Akron-based First Energy Corp.
In Householder, who had been House speaker once before, FirstEnergy found a willing ally, more than happy to take advantage of $60 million in "dark money" funded mostly by the Akron-based utility.
The dark money fund had two purposes: to elect state representatives who would make Householder speaker again, and to fight off a proposed ballot initiative to repeal House Bill 6.
Much of House Bill 6 did end up being repealed by the legislature, but only after Householder, Borges and three other co-conspirators were arrested by the FBI.
But other parts of the bill remain the law of the land, including coal subsidies and a rollback of renewable energy standards. Imagine that. Householder, the friend of King Coal, has been expelled from the House, convicted under the RICO Act, and is in danger of spending his dotage in a prison cell, but he has left a gift behind for his pals in the coal business.
Thank you, oh good and faithful servant.
As mind-boggling as it seems, Householder apparently believed he could get away with it, right up to the minute he took the stand in his own defense.
His message was simple: This was just business as usual in the Ohio Statehouse. A wink and a nod, money changes hands, even without being secretly slipped under the table. You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours.
The sad part is he's probably right.
In an era when politicians can and do load up with 501(C)(4) money — "dark money" where the donors' names don't show up in campaign finance reports — it's easy to skirt whatever cotton-candy laws there are in Ohio to prevent corruption.
There is some hope that the fate of Householder and the threat of RICO prosecutions would make any would-be Larrys in Ohio politics think twice before playing the game Householder played.
"I'm sure they are starting to get the message," Hoffmeister said. "You can't just do anything you want with this money."
The jury in this case might have had a hard time connecting the dots from Householder to FirstEnergy to "Generation Now," the utility's dark money fund, if it were only about electing sympathetic House members and fighting off a repeal movement.
It became very real, though, when the testimony turned to the $500,000 bribe from FirstEnergy, which went directly to Householder's bank account.
It was used to pay down a court judgement against the coal company he owned. It paid off his credit card debts. It was used to make improvements to his vacation home in Florida.
Householder claimed on the witness stand that was a loan from a friend that he intended to pay back. The problem was, though, he never listed any such debt on his Ohio Ethics Commission financial disclosure forms.
The jury wasn’t having any of it.
"If he had not taken money for his own personal gain, the trial may have had a different outcome," Hoffmeister said. "We'll never know. But putting money in his own pocket — that's something a jury has no problem understanding."
Householder may have thought he could pass himself off as some naïve country bumpkin from tiny Perry County, unfamiliar with the ways of the big city.
The jury wasn’t buying that act either.
They seemed to be acting under another old principle: Grifters gonna grift.
We can only hope that the sordid tale of Larry Householder and House Bill 6 will discourage others have following in his footsteps and falling down the dark money rabbit hole.
But if they don't — well, there are always the feds there with their RICO Act to teach them a lesson they won't soon forget.