COLUMBUS, Ohio — The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
Nearly a year since state Rep. Larry Householder was arrested on public corruption charges, four rank-and-file lawmakers argued their case to Ohio House leadership Thursday that it’s the House’s duty to purge Householder from the chamber he once controlled.
The lawmakers — two Republicans and two Democrats — introduced separate but similar resolutions last month to expel Householder, who lawmakers unanimously voted down as speaker last July after his arrest.
Despite the demotion, nearly all House Republicans voted at the time to keep him in office.
As the lawmakers weighed Householder’s political future, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black delayed criminal proceedings for three months in the racketeering case against him to give attorneys time to review the more than 1.2 million pieces of evidence exchanged during the discovery process.
A trial date has not yet been scheduled, applying more pressure to the political situation.
The four lawmakers leading the expulsion charge say Householder’s continued presence in the Ohio General Assembly erodes public trust in government. They argue Householder’s removal is necessary to restore the integrity of a state legislature tainted by a 43-page indictment rife with claims of bribery, strong-arm political tactics and dirty tricks.
Householder is accused of secretly accepting nearly $61 million from FirstEnergy Corp. to engineer the passage of House Bill 6, an energy overhaul and ratepayer-funded bailout bill worth an estimated $1.3 billion to the utility.
The hearing gave two of Householder’s allies on the House Rules Committee the chance to make their fullest arguments to date in defense of him remaining in office.
On Tuesday, Householder will have an opportunity to submit a statement or appear in person before the committee, which would likely yield some of his first substantive comments on the charges leveled against him.
House Majority Leader Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., a pugnacious lawyer and longtime state lawmaker, assumed a lead role defending Householder. He likened the resolutions to the impeachment trials against President Donald Trump and argued that removing Householder is unjust because he has pleaded innocent.
“There has been no proven bribery, vote stealing or any of that,” Seitz said. “These are simply allegations that are working their way through the court system.”
The resolutions are being put forward by GOP Reps. Brian Stewart of Ashville and Mark Fraizer of Newark as well as Democratic Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown and Jeffrey Crossman of Parma.
Stewart and Frazier cited guilty pleas from Householder’s political adviser Jeff Longstreth, lobbyist Juan Cespedes, and a nonprofit entity used to accept nearly $61 million from FirstEnergy Corp., as evidence that the criminal charges are not just allegations but stipulated facts.
Householder, along with lobbyist Matt Borges, have pleaded not guilty.
Lepore-Hagan and Crossman noted that a decision to expel Householder requires a different threshold of proof than that of a criminal trial.
“As far as I’m concerned, it looks like corruption to the FBI, it looks like corruption to the general public, and it definitely looks like corruption to me,” Lepore-Hagan said. “I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that an FBI indictment makes this institution look horrible. I don’t need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (Householder is) guilty to know that my constituents don’t want him earning a taxpayer-funded salary. Serving in this House is not a right, it is a privilege.”
Arguments made against expulsion
Thursday’s hearing looked less like a legislative hearing and more like a courtroom.
Four lawmakers sought to prosecute Householder for alleged misdeeds; Seitz acted as a de facto defense attorney, questioning the feds’ case and the limits of constitutional expulsion; and House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, quietly controlled the hearing and refrained from much comment.
Seitz questioned fellow lawmakers at length on the definition of “disorderly conduct,” an undefined term that appears in the state Constitution addressing expulsion.
“Each House may punish its members for disorderly conduct and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the members elected thereto, expel a member,” the provision states.
He argued the term refers to fighting, drunkenness, and other raucous behavior, akin to the criminal charge. The only other time an Ohio lawmaker has been expelled was in 1857 when a member punched a colleague in the face on the House floor.
The sponsors view the term more broadly to mean unlawful behavior conducted while in office.
Seitz tried to portray the resolutions as unprecedented, pointing to two Democratic lawmakers in years past who were accused of corruption without facing any expulsion vote.
However, the two examples differ greatly from the Householder situation. Rep. W. Carlton Weddington resigned from office on the same day he was indicted in March 2012, giving colleagues no opportunity to even pursue expulsion. Rep. Clayton Luckie was indicted in October 2012 and had already decided not to run for reelection. Luckie was out of office less than three months later when his term ended.
Householder was arrested 11 months ago, carried on with his reelection campaign and was sworn-in to a new term in January.
Seitz also argued the removal of Householder would be unfair to the citizens of the 72nd House District who reelected him. He pointed to the election taking place after Householder’s arrest as evidence.
Householder ran uncontested on the ballot. His arrest came after the deadline to file for the ballot. He won over a quartet of write-in candidates who hastily joined the race just a few months before Election Day.
Fraizer made note of the numerous local officials from the counties that Householder represents who also want him removed from office.
Alongside Seitz, Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, seemed to come to Householder’s aid.
“Is there a fear that … we’re going to start to expel members just because maybe they hurt our feelings or they did something that maybe didn’t set well with us politically, and it becomes a witch hunt?” he asked.
Stewart said there should be no fear of that, given the enormity of the scandal and yet no vote against Householder has taken place nearly a year after his arrest.
“We are not too concerned that the slippery slope is very slippery,” he said.
Seitz’s final argument of the day: What harm is there in allowing Householder to stay in office?
After all, Seitz argued, Householder is no longer in House leadership and does not serve on any legislative committees.
“Can you explain why you think that his mere presence … is such a problem, given that he has no power, no authority and he’s not going to be a deciding vote on anything?” Seitz asked.
“It’s perception,” Lepore-Hagan responded. “It’s the perception that we accept this in the General Assembly. Shame on us.”
“This is about the reputation of the institution,” he said. “Does the public believe that the bills, the policies, the legislation that comes out of this chamber reflect their best interest? If you continue to have a member here participating and voting, participating in discussions about legislation and policy, holding court in certain sectors of the chamber while session’s ongoing, it causes people to distrust that the work that we’re doing here actually represents the best policy.”
Stewart had made a similar argument earlier in the committee hearing.
“Consider the signal we send if after all of this, and after all of this evidence, and all these guilty pleas, we continue to say, ‘That’s OK, keep voting, keep introducing legislation.’ What signal does that send to a class of high school seniors in government class in Ohio? That terrifies me,” he said. “That’s a terrible signal. That’s why we’re here today.”