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Analysis: Larry Householder is going to prison. The dark money that put him there isn't going anywhere

larry householder
John Minchillo

You would think that seeing former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder handcuffed and marched off to prison to serve out a 20-year sentence might deter his former colleagues from going down the rabbit hole of bribery, deceit and corruption themselves.

It is hard to say.

So far, anyway, there is little evidence that the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly has learned any lessons from the biggest public corruption scandal in Ohio history.

It's been three years since federal authorities arrested Householder and four others on bribery charges, but the Ohio legislature has done nothing to either regulate or do away with the "dark money" funds like Generation Now, which was Householder's personal $60 million slush fund.

A dark money fund like Generation Now — known as a 501(c)(4) — does not have to disclose the names of its donors as candidate campaigns and political parties do.

They are everywhere in politics these days, and account for much of the political advertising you see on TV from both Republicans and Democrats.

RELATED: Of Ohio's many political scandals, these are 9 of the worst

Householder clearly knew what he was doing when he conspired with FirstEnergy Corp. to accept $60 million from Generation Now to buy votes for his election as speaker and to pass a $1.3 billion bailout for two financially troubled nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy.

One of those indicted along with Householder, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, was sentenced last week to five years in prison for his part in the scandal.

The biggest bribery scandal in the history of Ohio. And the legislature has done nothing to make sure it does not happen again.

"Yes, a 20-year prison sentence could be a deterrent for many," said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio. "But the problem remains — we still have a system of secrecy when it comes to these dark money funds."

Turcer said there was a saying among farmers when she lived in a rural area of upstate New York.

"They used to say, 'Pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered,' " Turcer said. "Larry Householder just got greedy."

Politicians of both parties have dark money funds.

"The problem is some of them will believe they are smarter than Larry Householder and won't get caught," Turcer said.

Is dark money always bad?

Mark R. Weaver, a long-time Republican lawyer and political strategist in Ohio, said he doesn't believe dark money in politics is inherently corrupt.

"There are reasons why people would not want their names reported — personal security, or to avoid becoming part of the 'cancel culture' because of who they support," Weaver said.

"It's like guns — guns are not good or evil; they are value-neutral," Weaver said. "A gun sits on the top shelf until somebody decides to use it."

But Weaver said he does believe Householder's 20-year prison sentence could deter other politicians from bad behavior.

"Politicos have taken notice of the parade of election officials going off to prisons around the country," Weaver said. "And it is both Republicans and Democrats."

From the archives:Why the 'culture of corruption' at Cincinnati City Hall?

It's true that, in Cincinnati at least, public corruption charges have been a bipartisan affair.

The same federal prosecutors who nailed Householder and his co-conspirators got indictments against three Cincinnati City Council members in recent years — Democrats Tamaya Dennard and P.G. Sittenfeld, as well as Republican Jeff Pastor.

Dennard served her time for honest services wire fraud and is now the director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit which helps people convicted of crimes find jobs.

Sittenfeld was convicted last year and Pastor entered a guilty plea in June. Both are awaiting sentencing.

Mack Mariani, a professor of political science at Xavier University, said he believes ego and a mistaken sense they can't be touched by the law is what motivates politicians like Householder.

"My general sense is that politicians who do this sort of thing think the rules don't apply to them or that they have found a clever way around the rules," Mariani said. "The root of the scandal is hubris, and unfortunately, you aren't going to prevent the elected officials who suffer from an inflated sense of self-worth from making mistakes like this in the future.

"To be clear, research on legislatures indicates that the vast majority of people who serve in legislatures are motivated by service, not financial or personal gain," said Mariani. "Cases like this may make those legislators more careful about following the letter of the law very carefully and avoiding the appearance of impropriety. But honestly, the honest, service-oriented legislators are not typically the problem."

What's being done?

Two Democrats in the Ohio House — Jessica Miranda of Forest Park and Bride Rose Sweeney of Cleveland — introduced House Bill 112 in March. It would require the reporting of the names of contributors to dark money funds and all other campaign funds where the donors are not reported.

In testimony submitted to the House Government Oversight Committee in April, Miranda and Sweeney warned that inaction will likely lead to another major scandal in Ohio.

"Ohio remains dry tinder for another forest fire of corruption to sweep through the state because the General Assembly has done nothing to prevent it," they said.

RELATED: Reaction to the Larry Householder guilty verdict

Given the Republican supermajority in the legislature and the fact that the GOP has done nothing to prevent future scandals since the Householder scandal broke, it is highly unlikely HB 112 will become law.

"You would think that after the sentences, the Republicans might be ready to act," Miranda told WVXU. "But, then again, maybe they are so drunk with power that they think they can't be touched."

But Weaver has some wise counsel that he passes along to his political clients, all of whom are Republicans and most of whom deal in dark money.

"I tell them to act as if all of this money is going to end up being reported," Weaver said. "Because, sooner or later, it will be. What is secret now may not stay secret."

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.