COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the state gets ready for the most significant corruption trial in Ohio history, the Statehouse continuously deals with the lasting impact former House Speaker Larry Householder has on the government.
A group of Republican lawmakers in Ohio is pushing ethics reform, just before one of their own heads to court.
"We're hopeful that the criminals in the Republican Party who orchestrated this multimillion-dollar bribery scheme will finally be held accountable," Liz Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic Party said during a press conference Thursday morning.
Walters has been waiting for the trial against Householder and former GOP leader Matt Borges for two years. She argues nothing has been done to combat corruption after the accused were arrested. Some Republicans, including state Rep. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova Township) agree.
"Many in the media have pointed out glaring omissions and arrows in our ethics laws, and we want to do our best to solve it," Merrin said. "When things are ambiguous and not clear, it gives politicians the ability to not get pinned down and to evade."
The Toledo-area lawmaker, who is currently leading a "third party" in the House after losing the vote for speaker, proposed an ethics bill.
The bill has some similar provisions to the Anti-Corruption Act, introduced by House Minority Leader Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) and state Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-Cleveland) just days after Householder was arrested. It focused on transparency by requiring dark money groups to identify their contributors and disclose their spending.
Other provisions from Merrin's reform would require lobbyists to share who their money comes from and the amount. Another would prevent elected officials from getting paid for sitting on corporate boards, like Lt. Gov Jon Husted is currently doing, even after facing backlash from people outside and inside his party.
It is also attempting to prevent another House Bill 6 scandal.
"The people that are appointed to the PUCO and the financial disclosures that are missing, people that have had relationships with utility companies, that have received compensation, All that needs to be public before an appointment like that is made," the legislator continued.
This bill comes after Merrin and other GOP House members wrote a letter to Speaker Jason Stephens about his new pick for the caucus policy director.
Stephens chose Megan Fitzmartin, who worked closely with Householder and Jeff Longstreth. Longsreth pleaded guilty in the case and is soon to testify against Householder, who is maintaining his innocence.
In the letter, the team writes, “The hire is extraordinarily ill-advised and demonstrates questionable judgment.”
It should be noted that Merrin voted against expelling Householder from the House after he was arrested, as did Stephens.
In a response, Stephens argued back that no one should be punished based on who they have previously served.
“Your letter, and similar actions, are ultimately to the detriment of our entire caucus and the Ohio House of Representatives,” the response stated.
Stephens added that singling out the staffer was “haphazard” and “self-serving.”
"I think the bigger question is what Republicans want to spend their time doing and whether they're actually going to focus on doing the business of the people or kind of fighting out their own political agendas in a very public, embarrassing way and harmful way, for that matter," Walters said.
Regardless of the motive behind the bill, the Democrat is happy.
"I am hopeful that this means that ethics in the statehouse will change," she said. "We'll see if this continues after the trial is over."
Defendants face off
In documents filed Wednesday, Jeff Longstreth and Juan Cespedes have agreed to testify at the upcoming jury trial, according to prosecutors. House operative Longstreth and lobbyist Cespedes both pleaded guilty in the case. Neil Clark, a longtime lobbyist, died by suicide after being charged.
Their plea deal includes prosecutors only recommending a custodial sentence measured in months, not years, according to a response filed Thursday by the Householder team.
On Monday, Borges joined Householder in asking for the court to exclude the two coconspirator plea agreements.
"The defense might be saying 'We don't want the fact that they were plea agreements or negotiations with some of the other defendants to come into evidence because that might imply that there actually was this big conspiracy that the government saying we're part of that,'" Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Entin said.
Householder argued that the pleas and cooperation agreements are "not relevant and are unfairly prejudicial."
News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau will be in Cincinnati covering the trial. Jury selection begins Friday and the trial officially begins Monday. Her previous coverage on the scandal is linked throughout the article.
Lawmakers and the Householder Scandal
Check out the chart below to see how the current House lawmakers who are still in office voted on both House Bill 6 and expelling Larry Householder:
*N/A means the lawmaker was not in office yet