COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tyler Fehrman, the Republican operative who is credited with exposing mass public corruption in the Ohio Statehouse, says he finally feels vindicated following nearly four years of hell.
He testified on Monday in the state's largest public corruption trial, which is nearing its conclusion with closing arguments to be made on Tuesday. Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder faced a brutal cross-examination Thursday, before co-defendant Matt Borges declined to testify in his defense.
Householder is accused of accepting a nearly $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation, House Bill 6, that would provide a $1.3 billion bailout to FirstEnergy and other utility companies. Former GOP leader Matt Borges is also charged in the conspiracy. The two men have a combined trial and have both pleaded not guilty.
After H.B. 6 passed, citizens started a repeal effort, which is where Fehrman comes in.
The offer he did refuse
Back in 2019, Fehrman was in a tough spot. He was struggling financially, was dealing with his divorce and was working job-to-job, Fehrman testified in federal court Monday.
His current job was working for a company hired to gather signatures to get the legislation off the books, he said.
When his mentor, Borges, wanted to meet up in early September, Fehrman happily agreed.
"That initial meeting seemed like normal coffee with myself and a guy who was a close friend, but also a mentor, someone I really looked up to," Fehrman told News 5. "The conversation started normally... even though we were on opposite sides."
Borges was in support of the energy bailout, and his desire to learn more about Fehrman's work became evident quickly into the discussion. The mentor started peppering Fehrman with questions about logistics in the ballot process, how many signatures they had and the amount of individuals working to get support, he testified.
"I was like, 'no way, like, there's no way I'm going to give him this information and he shouldn't be asking me,'" Fehrman said. "But then he paired it with, 'how much debt do you have? What's left on your car note? Let's talk about your child support arrears.'"
Borges only knew this information because the pair had been friends for around a decade, Fehrman said. That conversation led to Borges offering to take care of a difficult financial situation, the operative added.
"I just instantly felt my heart sink," he said. "There was that pit in your stomach where it is like, 'no, this is not all right.'"
There was an implication that Borges would take care of his difficulties if he could spy for him, he added.
While leaving, Fehrman felt violated and scared, he said. Borges had been someone he could rely on, a job reference who opened doors for him, but more importantly, someone to call a friend.
"We ceased being friends as soon as he made this ask of me," he said.
Calling the FBI
Fehrman made a call to his best friend directly after the meeting. His best friend just happened to know FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel, he said.
Talking to the agent that night, the pair made a plan to meet the next day at a Graeter's ice cream store, he testified.
Wetzel had already been investigating H.B. 6 after the other whistleblower, Northeast Ohio's former state Rep. Dave Greenspan, met with him at a Bob Evans in May of 2019 to raise concerns about the ethics surrounding the bill, the agent testified.
Soon after, Fehrman started to collaborate with the FBI as an informant.
Fehrman started wearing a wire and recording conversations with Borges, he said.
These recordings, played in court, contained quotes from Borges such as:
- “No matter what, don’t ever tell anyone about our conversation earlier.”
- If news of Borges’ dealings with Fehrman became public “it will be bad for us and worse for you.”
- “You’re not trying to set me up, are you?”
- “I’m going to blow your house up.”
Borges, seemingly suspicious, made Fehrman even more anxious, he said.
"You're constantly worried about 'what if I say the wrong thing and he figures it out? What's going to happen if I'm sitting at this Starbucks in Grandview and he suddenly realizes what's taking place? What is he going to do to me either right there immediately or after?" Ferhman said.
But Borges didn't find out. Two weeks after the initial conversation, Borges slid over a $15,000 check.
The defense responds
The FBI called it a bribe, but in cross-examination, the defense attorneys said it was a way for the mentor to provide support for the financially-struggling Fehrman.
Scott Pullins, an outspoken member of Team Householder, told News 5 that this is the truth, adding that Fehrman knew that the referendum wasn’t going well.
"One side won and one side lost," Pullins said. "Then the folks who were involved went crying to the FBI."
Fehrman was overreacting, he added.
"When I'm friends with someone for a long time and they say something to me that makes me question what they're doing, I would probably talk to them first before I ran off to the FBI and tried to get them thrown in jail for the rest of their lives," Pullins said.
Pullins spoke to many different aspects of the trial and the past few years, including his financial relationship with Generation Now, what happened to Householder-friendly blog '3rd Rail Politics,' and if he was being paid to speak to News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau. That story coming next week.
News 5 reached out to criminal law professor Michael Benza to get some insight on the defense point of view.
"The argument is this was just one person helping out another person, and that's all it was," Benza said.
Pullins added that the threat to blow up Fehrman's house was clearly a joke, which the professor explained the logic behind.
"Look, this is how people talk to each other, this was a joke," Benza said, acting as though he was the defense attorney. "I never was going to blow up his house. It was just a comment... We were pretending like we were gangsters from a 1940s MGM movie or something."
The defense also argued that Fehrman was the one to pursue Borges with his sad stories to make Borges feel guilty and want to help provide money, the team said in trial.
Fehrman moved out of Ohio and stopped working in state politics. But it was really after his testimony that he felt the most free from the whole scandal.
"Coming up in politics, we always have the opportunity to respond to what someone says about us, to clear our name or defend ourselves — not being able to do that has been incredibly difficult," he said. "It's a relief because I can tell my story. I can tell the truth of what happened."
He hopes Borges will be found guilty, and based on Householder's cross-examination — he is pretty confident the former speaker will be going down as well.
"I watched it happen and I was a part of this whole story," he said. "And I think they need they need to answer for what they did."
Will the convictions of either man make a difference in Ohio politics? Will people start following the law or being more careful?
"I would love to sit here and tell you, 'yes, absolutely, it will be a catalyst for great change," he said. "Unfortunately, I don't know. There is still, even now, there is so much wrong with our political system."
Something that needs to be addressed is the "casket carrier" attitude.
"It's just blind loyalty no matter what," he said. "I've never been that guy and I will never be that guy."
More people need to hold each other accountable, he said.
"We've got a lot of work to do, but I'm going to leave that work to other people," Fehrman said with a laugh. "I'm out."
News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau has been in Cincinnati covering the trial. Previous coverage of the scandal is can be found by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.