Householder testifying in own defense Wednesday in FirstEnergy bribery trial

Lobbyists allegedly involved in scheme also take the stand
Posted at 11:58 AM, Mar 01, 2023

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Former Statehouse Speaker Larry Householder took the stand Wednesday in the trial for his alleged role in a bribery scheme to pass Ohio’s nuclear bailout bill.

Householder testifies

Householder officially began testifying just before noon Wednesday. He is accused of accepting a $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation that gave a $1 billion bailout to FirstEnergy's struggling company, on the taxpayers' dime. He denies any wrongdoing.

Before he got into the courtroom, News 5's Morgan Trau asked Householder if testifying would really help his case.

"Well I hope so, its the first opportunity ive had to talk in two years so I can’t wait,” the former speaker responded.

He was expelled from the Statehouse in 2021, and since then, he has waited to defend himself and his extensive career in politics publicly.

"Today is going to be a great day,” he said.

Householder's testimony began with the basics of his background, including how long he has been with his wife Tondra, his elections and his previous work experience. He talked about how he was the "underdog" in his early races.

"I was discouraged by the divisiveness there was in politics," Householder said about why he decided to run in 2016. Plus, he also wanted to focus on education and transportation policy, he said.

His defense attorneys put a lot of focus on the need to raise money, especially as Householder wasn't getting support from the campaign teams he wanted in Ohio, as they were concentrated on the House caucus. The former lawmaker reinforced how important money is in politics to get anything done, seemingly setting up his argument for further testimony.

"He's been bullsh*ting his way to success for years and years," former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Brien said. "He probably thinks he can get away with this, too."

Householder is accused of accepting nearly $61 million in bribes for a billion-dollar bailout for first energy’s struggling nuclear power plants. O’Brien warned that taking the stand is a risky move and there’s a reason why defendants rarely testify.

"If he is convicted, which appears likely, the fact that he testified falsely is going to add about five or ten years when you add perjury on top of the crimes that he was convicted of," the attorney said.

But Householder is taking that risk. His decision to testify came as a shock to some lawyers and lawmakers, but Case Western Reserve University criminal law professor Michael Benza argued that Householder, even if he didn’t want to testify, needed to.

"If he doesn't testify, the jury is left with the very logical roadmap that the government has set out showing the money and showing its impact — equaling this was corruption," Benza said. "Unless somebody is able to say, 'yes, this money came in, this is how politics works. I didn't take it for corruption. I took it for political purposes.'"

That is exactly what the defense plans to show. But first, Householder contradicted past government witnesses, like Jeff Longstreth. He denied knowing many details about the nonprofit he allegedly controlled to receive said bribes and funnel money for personal gain — putting the blame on the coconspirator. He also denied being at certain events and choosing 2018 candidates specifically for their loyalty to him.

"He doesn't have anything to lose," Benza said.

Follow News 5 reporter @MorganTrau on Twitter for live tweets from the court. Read previous coverage of yesterday and today's proceedings below.

Trial resumed Wednesday morning

News 5’s Morgan Trau caught up with Householder Wednesday morning as he made his way into the courthouse in Columbus and asked if he thought testifying in his own trial will help his case.

“Well I would hope so! It’s the first opportunity I’ve had in two and a half years to talk, so I can’t wait,” he said. "Today’s going to be a great day.”

First to testify Wednesday was Bob Klaffky, the lobbyist who allegedly slid the $400,000 check across the table to Householder, a key moment in the corruption trial. Before the jury entered the courtroom, prosecutors wanted to remind Klaffky about his right Fifth Amendment right to not self-incriminate.

There was another witness for the defense who decided to plead the Fifth after talking to prosecutors. Householder’s attorneys said this is having a “chilling effect” on their ability to call witnesses, reports Paula Christian with News 5 partner WCPO in Cincinnati. Prosecutors said this isn’t a tactic but merely their obligation to inform witnesses they may incriminate themselves by testifying.

In Householder’s defense, Klaffky made the points that there was no agreement with FirstEnergy as a result of the $400,000 donation check, and he did not personally witness “pay-to-play” at the October 2018 meeting where prosecutors contend the scheme was hatched.

However, in cross-examination, prosecutors repeatedly asked Klaffky to confirm that it is illegal to try to bribe a lawmaker.

“I'm not a lawyer...I don't think they should be able to [work as a lobbyist if they do],” he said.

When asked again whether it is against Ohio law, Klaffky admitted: “Maybe.”

Trau is covering the trial today and live-tweeting from the courthouse – follow @MorganTraufor real-time updates.

Prosecution rested Tuesday

The prosecution rested Tuesday and the defense began to make its case, calling on current and former state representatives to testify, including Brett Hillyer, who represents all of Tuscarawas and part of southern Stark County.

Rep. Bill Seitz from Cincinnati was the defense’s first witness, and when he testified Tuesday, he didn't defend Householder, but he did defend his vote on controversial nuclear bailout at heart of this public corruption case, Christian reports.

The prosecution asked Seitz to explain his text message to Householder after the HB6 vote bragging that the GOP delegation from Southwest Ohio had best performance with only 1 no vote.

"Tells me we understand the team concept better than a lot of others do,” the text read.

The prosecuting attorney asked Seitz what he meant by that text. Seitz said he meant it was a “good team to be on” to save ratepayers money.

Householder’s attorneys also called former Ohio state representative Nino Vitale as a defense witness Tuesday, according to Christian. Vitale chaired a committee that Householder created to pass HB6, and made headlines as an early adopter of COVID-19 conspiracy theories involving masks, FEMA camps, vaccines and globalists, reports Jake Zuckerman with the Ohio Capital Journal.

Householder’s defense tried to show that many Republican leaders voted for HB6 and Householder as speaker without promises, pressure or contributions from FirstEnergy.

Former lobbyist Matt Borges is also on trial.

The defense is expected to rest Thursday.

We will continue to provide updates on Householder’s trial and testimony in this story.

Watch live and local news any time:

Scripps News On The Scene

Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.

You can also catch News 5 Cleveland on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live and more. We're also on Amazon Alexa devices. Learn more about our streaming options here.