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'The company was just bleeding cash': FirstEnergy testifies at Larry Householder public corruption trial

Larry Householder giving a thumbs up before going into his second day of trial
Posted at 9:32 PM, Jan 24, 2023

CINCINNATI — FirstEnergy, the company that already confessed to bribing former Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Larry Householder for a billion-dollar bailout to help its failing corporation, testified Tuesday in the trial against said lawmaker who is accused of accepting the bribe.

After a long first day, the public corruption trial against Householder and former GOP lobbyist Matt Borges continued.

RELATED: 'Unholy alliance' — Chaotic first day of Larry Householder corruption trial

FirstEnergy Treasurer Steven Staub took the stand, as prosecutor Matthew Singer prepped to question his witness.

His company is accused of bribing the defendants with more than $60 million in exchange for a $1.3 billion bailout, also known as House Bill 6.

“The company was just bleeding cash,” Staub said about the abysmal benefits to the then-sinking utility entity.

The board has been "under pressure" to make money, especially in 2016, Staub said. It was evaluating "all options available" to exit unregulated generations.

The board considered four options: a legislative or regulatory fix, deactivation, restructuring or bankruptcy.

The company would work with Ohio Legislature to see if there was a “financial solution to help.” An attempt was made in 2017 with the Zero Emission Nuclear Resource bill, which would help keep FE nuclear power plants afloat. It failed, leading to bankruptcy.

In other words — FirstEnergy and its subsidiaries were desperate.

Despite all of this, Staub said he had no idea any of the money laundering was going on. However, his signature would be on the checks given to Householder.

“My team and I were not involved in approving [any types of] payments, we just processed.”

Constitutional law expert Jonathan Entin said the utility company made an agreement with the prosecutors.

"FirstEnergy has admitted that it made unlawful payments with the H.B. 6 scandal."

The government won’t prosecute if the corporation cooperates with the investigation, creating a deferred prosecution agreement, plus it must pay a $230 million fine.

In cross-examination, Householder’s attorney argued that FirstEnergy also makes campaign contributions to lawmakers it feels would align with its values, something legal.

And the trial is just starting to heat up. Blane Wetzel, an FBI special agent, has begun testifying. He has been managing this case.

"This agent's testimony will be pretty significant to the outcome of the trial," Entin said. "If the agent's testimony persuades the jury that what was going on here was that FirstEnergy was buying the defendants, then that will not bode well for the defense."

Wetzel was the one who brought the case forward after he received information from a "concerned individual." He filed around 250 subpoenas in this case, he said. Also, search warrants.

Prosecution entered a large number of financial documents in for evidence. Discover, Fifth Third, Forcht, Huntington, JPMorgan Chase, PNC, United, Union, Amalgamated, Verizon and AT&T are all admitted.

Business records include: Paychex; Red Maverick Media; Allen, Stovall, Neuman, Fisher & Ashton LLP; Crossroads Media; Storytellers; CGI Investigation; Hardworking Ohioans; Nordic Construction; Partners for Progress; Apple and Gmail.

Wetzel will be on the stand for the next day, possibly longer. Other important witnesses are coming up, Entin said.

Both coconspirators who pleaded guilty will be testifying against Householder and Borges, but there is one that could top it all.

"He's talked with his lawyers about the advantages and disadvantages of getting on the stand," Entin said. "And presumably, Householder has decided ‘I'll take the chance.’"

News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau is in Cincinnati covering the trial with sister station partners Paula Christian of WCPO and Marty Schladen of Ohio Capital Journal. Christian and Schladen both focused on different aspects of Wetzel's testimony.

Previous coverage of the scandal is can be found below:

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