The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
CINCINNATI — There has been speculation since the start of a massive public corruption trial that lawyers for the main defendant — former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder — were banking on getting any conviction tossed out on appeal.
There might have been evidence of that on Tuesday when one of the attorneys took the rare step of accusing the judge in the case of bias against his client. The attorney also suggested that the judge harbored a political grudge against Householder going back more than 22 years.
Testimony resumed Tuesday in the case after repeated delays — first because of weather and then because a juror tested positive for covid.
When it did, federal prosecutors continued presenting extensive evidence to support allegations that Ohio utilities paid $61 million into Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) dark money groups and Householder used the money to elect friendly Republicans to make himself speaker in early 2019. Householder is accused of pushing through a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout that primarily benefited his primary benefactor — Akron-based FirstEnergy — in return.
Prosecutors have said it was likely the largest bribery and money-laundering scheme in Ohio history.
Federal prosecutors are known to usually file charges only when they’re almost certain to get a conviction. That’s perhaps even more true when the case is against an elected official.
And over the course of testimony so far, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter has introduced reams of evidence in the form of emails and text messages, as well as transcripts of wiretaps and witness testimony — including that of co-defendants who have pleaded guilty.
Householder’s attorneys have argued that their client raising money and electing candidates who would support his speaker’s bid was just politics as usual. They also argue that Householder only wanted to prop up failing nuclear and coal plants because he wanted to save jobs and protect the tax bases of the communities where they were located.
Householder also is alleged to have pocketed $500,000 in utility money himself, but his lawyers say those were loans he fully intended to repay.
However, the attorneys’ conduct on Tuesday might indicate that they’re looking past the jury trial.
Before the jury entered the courtroom, Householder attorney Mark Marein rose to complain to U.S. District Judge Timothy Black — about the conduct of Black himself.
“We all collectively believe that the court holds animosity toward us,” Marein said, referring to Householder’s legal team. He added, “I question whether (Judge Black) should be presiding over this.”
Black scolded Householder’s lawyers last week for muttering and making faces during Glatfelter’s opening statement. Among his criticisms, Black called the conduct “bush league.”
The judge also dismissed a juror who refused to wear a mask in court. That prompted speculation that Householder’s lawyers were displeased because such a juror might be more sympathetic to their client, a pro-Trump Republican.
But Marein gave a wholly different reason for suspecting that the judge was biased against Householder. He said that Black might be holding a grudge from 2000, when Black ran for the Ohio Supreme Court and Householder worked against the candidacy.
Both Marein and Black acknowledged that Marein was making the statements simply to get them into the record — presumably so they would be there in the event of an appeal.
There is some precedent for overturning public corruption convictions over complaints of judicial bias and prosecutorial misconduct.
In 2009, the conviction of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was thrown out after the FBI was found to have withheld exculpatory evidence and other misconduct. And in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, ruling that the trial court judge allowed prosecutors to use an overly broad definition of bribery.
But accusing a judge of bias in the middle of a trial has risks. Lawyers have said that if one genuinely believes a judge is biased, accusing that person of it in open court could simply make things worse. And in some instances, such accusations have resulted in professional sanctions against the lawyers making them.
There were a few other developments of interest Tuesday:
- Prosecutors played a recording of a wiretapped phone conversation between Householder and political operative Neil Clark in December 2017. Clark was also charged in the corruption scandal, but later died by suicide. In a laughing, profanity-strewn passage, the two talked about how Republicans legislators in 2010 drew a portion of Columbus into former U.S. Rep. Pat Tiberi’s district. “Tiberi wanted a safer district,” Householder said, later adding, “He doesn’t like me because he thinks I f*****d with him.” The maps drawn in 2011 were said to have some of the most gerrymandered in the country. Last year, a Republican-controlled panel repeatedly refused orders from the state Supreme Court to draw them more evenly.
- Householder allies and FirstEnergy officials in August 2017 discussed a third tranche of $250,000 from the company to a Householder-controlled dark-money group at the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where that state’s Coal Association was holding its annual meeting. The money flowed soon thereafter. That meeting follows a round of swanky dinners in Washington, D.C., involving Householder and FirstEnergy officials the previous January during former President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Two dark-money groups were set up within weeks and one quickly received the first $250,000 from FirstEnergy, even though was hemorrhaging money.
The trial resumes Wednesday. It’s expected to last into March.
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