COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Statehouse, and the rest of the country, have their eyes on the public corruption trial involving the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives as jurors were selected Friday.
The state is watching — for both the door of the federal court and for justice. Around 8:20 a.m., former Speaker Larry Householder made his way into the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, with codefendant Matt Borges, a former GOP leader, following after.
The case caught the eye of former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice Kevin O'Brien. He understands the court procedures from each side, now specializing in white-collar criminal defense.
"This is a case where bribes, alleged bribes in the millions are going in one direction," O'Brien said. "Benefits in the billions are going the other way in the form of legislation to help the utilities."
Despite his years as a trial attorney, he has never seen a case like this before.
"The numbers are astounding," he added. "Absolutely astounding."
Householder is accused of selling the Statehouse for a quick — and expensive — buck. And Borges for making the $60 million bribery scheme possible. Both pleaded not guilty.
The multi-millions went into Householder's own nonprofit to fund his campaign, according to prosecutors. In return, $1.3 billion went to a bill to bail out FirstEnergy. The Ohio utility company already admitted to bribery and was made to pay $230 million in fines.
Householder and Borges were two of five people arrested in the case. House operative Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes both pleaded guilty in the case. Longtime lobbyist Neil Clark died by suicide after being charged.
Longstreth and Cespedes have agreed to testify at the upcoming jury trial, according to prosecutors. Attorney General Dave Yost and at least three former state lawmakers were subpoenaed to testify, as well.
"It's a pretty daring thing to go to trial under these circumstances," O'Brien said.
The government being able to utilize the alleged coconspirators, recordings and statements from other parties, and admittance from FirstEnergy all lead to a risky attempt of proving the defendants aren't guilty, he added.
"You have to assume it's a very strong case or these people who have every reason not to cooperate with the government and go on with their lucrative practices, these people wouldn't have folded... and face their former friends across the witness stand and testify against them," he said. "That's really hard and it takes a lot out of you. You can ruin your life, it can ruin your marriage, it can ruin your friendships.
"And to do that against all those odds suggests that the government has a lot of evidence that could be persuasive to the jury. We'll find out."
If convicted, each man could face up to 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands in fines.
Filed Friday evening, Judge Timothy S. Black had the prosecutors and defenders agree on relevant points.
Records from the following companies have been agreed to as records of regularly conducted activity:
17 Consulting, LLC; Allen, Stovall, Neuman, Fisher & Ashton LLP; Anna Lippincott & Associates, LLC; Apple, Inc.; Amalgamated Bank; Arena Online, LLC; AT&T; Centric Bank; CGI Investigation, LLC; Charles Schwab; Crossroads Media; Discover Products, Inc; Energy Harbor, LLC; Fifth Third Bank; FirstEnergy; First National Bank of Pennsylvania; Forcht Bank, NA; Google; FP 1 Strategies, LLC; Hardworking Ohioans; Huntington National Bank; JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A; Lincoln Strategy Group; LoParo Public Relations; MC Fitzmartin, LLC; Mighty Group; Nordic Construction; Ohio AFL-CIO; Partners for Progress, Inc.; Partners for Progress, Inc.; PNC Bank, N.A.; Red Maverick Media; Silver Bullet Group, Inc.; Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, LLP; The Community Bank; The Union Bank; T-Mobile; United Bank; Verizon Wireless; Winterset CPA Group, Inc and Records Wyncroft Strategies, LLC.
Records from Brooke Bodney and Eric Lycan are also included.
What this means is that both sides agree that these records meet a certain threshold of validity, but the parties can still attempt to object the admission of a specific record on other bases, just none including the "regularly conducted activity" clause.
Ohio is known for more than just football, cold winters and producing presidents
Whether it was Coingate, an investment scandal that led to a money laundering conviction, ECOT, a charter school that allegedly defrauded the state and still owes $117 million or that time when a deputy treasurer was caught in a bribery scheme and fled to Pakistan — Ohio is no stranger to corruption.
Ohio has loose laws regarding ethics and campaign finance, Daniel Weiner said. He is the director of the Brennan Center’s Elections and Government Program, focusing on money in politics.
"There's a significant amount of dark money spent on Ohio elections," Weiner said. "[It's] a situation where the eyes of the country are on the state. It's also a state, frankly, where there have been a lot of controversies more broadly about, you know, the responsiveness of the Legislature."
He said this trial will have lasting impacts on the state, for good or for bad — depends on your side.
"The potential of an innocent verdict basically illustrates how hard it is to use the criminal law to sort of safeguard government integrity," he said. "The threat of criminal prosecution, while it is serious, isn't really a substitute for strong rules."
List of perceived major public financial corruption events (including but not limited to):
- Redistricting and gerrymandering - current
- Householder corruption trial - 2020 to current
- Cliff Rosenberger alleged payday lending - 2018
- Electronic Classroom of Today - 2018
- Amer Ahmad convicted kickback scheme - 2013
- Jimmy Dimora convicted racketeering - 2012
- Coingate - 2005
- Stanley Aronoff and Vern Riffe's indictments on disclosure - 1996
"The best way to ensure both the government is working effectively for voters, but also, frankly, that elected officials have clear guidelines for how they should conduct themselves in office, is to have these sort of strong upfront rules in place," Weiner said. "Transparency is a huge part of that."
News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau will be in Cincinnati covering the trial. Some of her previous coverage of the scandal is can be found below.
- Difficult to escape Larry Householder’s influence at Ohio Statehouse, even ahead of corruption trial
- Former Ohio speaker Larry Householder seeks to prevent recordings being played in corruption trial
- Dozens of companies, AG Yost, former lawmakers subpoenaed ahead of Householder corruption trial
- Ohio House Bill 6 scandal settlement payments coming soon, but isn’t over yet