COLUMBUS, Ohio — The federal corruption trial against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder has finished cross-examination of the lead FBI agent on the case.
Here is a brief update on the most significant details from Week 3.
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. Householder and former GOP lobbyist Borges have a combined trial and have both pleaded not guilty.
House operative Jeff Longstreth and FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes pleaded guilty and are set to testify. Longtime lobbyist Neil Clark died by suicide outside his Florida home after pleading not guilty to racketeering.
FirstEnergy already confessed to bribing Householder to help its failing corporation.
Borges and the referendum
The prosecution turned its aim towards Matt Borges, the former GOP leader.
After House Bill 6 passed, citizens started a repeal effort, gathering signatures from people like Democratic activist Nick Tuell with Innovation Ohio.
"We had a number of players who are involved with this trial who worked to prevent us from having that voice and having that vote at the ballot," Tuell said.
Borges was allegedly in control of squashing that voice — and to do so, he gave a $15,000 check to Tyler Fehrman in exchange for information on the signatures. Fehrman gave that check to the FBI.
Cespedes contacted state Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Twp.) who connected him with a private investigation firm to follow and track petition team members with GPS software. News 5 reached out to LaRe to ask if he knew why Cespedes wanted a P.I., the lawmaker said to refer to a previous statement he made.
"Not much I can say other than this. With my background in law enforcement and private security, I’ve often been asked to recommend an industry professional. When that happens, I provide the name of someone who I think can ethically and effectively do the work,” LaRe said.
Criminal defense attorney Kevin O’Brien believes the Borges team can argue a different reason for why the proposal failed.
"The defense can capitalize on [the proposal failing] to show that this wasn't the result of a bribe, this was the result of public policy and the beliefs of the leaders of the Republican party," O'Brien said.
LaRe isn’t the only current official who has been named dropped.
Attorney General Dave Yost was allegedly furious at Borges for harassing ballot campaigners, according to texts sent by Borges.
Court evidence showed that FirstEnergy leaders texted, saying DeWine was “on board” to block the repeal, while Lt. Gov. Jon Husted allegedly never responded and Sec. of State Frank LaRose was considering it.
According to the FBI, former GOP lawmaker Dave Greenspan actually got the investigation started. Greenspan was concerned about the ethics around H.B. 6, and while at a Bob Evans with the lead agent Blane Wetzel, the lawmaker got a text from Householder asking him to delete all previous texts.
"What is the extent of the statewide elected officials in this bribery scandal, what is the extent of other state representatives in this scandal?" Tuell asked. "We just need to know."
The FBI broke down the money received by the five charged.
Longstreth: $2.53 million
Cross-examination of Wetzel started and finished in about one full day.
The defense argued that this was politics as usual, saying it is common for other entities to draft bills and give them to lawmakers.
"This was just something that this utility, like all large companies, they all have lobbyists, they all have well-heeled people who do their bidding," O'Brien said.
COVID-19 has caused nearly six days of missed court time. Two jurors have been dismissed and there are new safety measures to keep the remaining jurors healthy.
On Monday, eight jurors got stuck in an elevator together at the federal courthouse.
As reported by Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer, the judge told the jurors he gets claustrophobic and "would have removed all his clothes had he been in their situation."
More witnesses will take the stand in Week 4, which Tuell said is the only way forward — both in the trial and for Ohio.
"Until we know exactly the extent of all of it, how can we prevent it from happening again?" he said.
News 5 Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau has been in Cincinnati covering the trial with news partners Paula Christian of WCPO and Marty Schladen of Ohio Capital Journal.
Previous coverage of the scandal is can be found by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.
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