BY: MARTY SCHLADEN – Ohio Capital Journal MARCH 9, 2023 4:50 AM
CINCINNATI — A jury was sent home Wednesday after about six hours of deliberation in Ohio’s massive public corruption trial.
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and state Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are accused of racketeering in a scheme to use more than $60 million in money from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder speaker in 2019. Householder led the charge to pass and protect a $1.3 billion that mostly benefited FirstEnergy’s failing nuclear and coal plants.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the jury didn’t immediately come to a verdict. They have more than six weeks of testimony and a mountain of evidence in a complex case to consider.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black instructed the 12 jurors to begin deliberations about 10:30 a.m.
Before that, Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter gave an hour-long rebuttal to closing arguments made by the defendants’ lawyers on Tuesday. In her talk, Painter tried to reinforce the prosecution’s narrative as well as rebut some of the doubts raised by the defense attorneys.
One way she did so was by highlighting the perks Householder enjoyed from FirstEnergy executives and how quickly after they started the political money started to flow into Householder’s operation.
Steven Bradley, one of Householder’s attorneys, on Tuesday said that Householder only met FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones shortly before the conspiracy supposedly started and then only casually. He also argued that Householder didn’t have much contact with FirstEnergy executives in the months leading up to the start of Generation Now, Householder’s 501(c)(4) dark money group into which tens of millions of FirstEnergy money would flow.
When he testified, Householder said he met Jones in the FirstEnergy executive box in Cleveland during a rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series. That was on Nov. 2, 2016.
Painter derided Householder’s account of how casual the meeting was “when he just happened to wander into the FirstEnergy executive box.”
She cited a text message Jones sent shortly thereafter to Cleveland businessman Tony George. Referring to Householder, Jones said, “When we were talking on Wednesday, I told him there was going to be a sense of urgency.”
George, a friend to both, responded, “He’s more than ready to craft something.”
Painter pointed out that it was George who invited Householder to fly a few months later to Donald Trump’s inauguration aboard a FirstEnergy jet with George and FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling.
And George was “the same person who booked Larry Householder and Chuck Jones into the same hotel in Washington, D.C.,” Painter said. Records presented at the trial indicate that George made those reservations within a minute of one another.
A few weeks after the inauguration, in February 2017, Householder’s fixer, Jeffrey Longstreth, set up Generation Now. FirstEnergy would pay $1 million into it through the remainder of the year.
Into 2020, the company and its subsidiary would pump in tens of millions more. It would first be used to pay people to raise funds, knock on doors and provide other services for Householder-friendly candidates, while producing ads that attacked their opponents.
In early 2019, after the bailout was introduced, it bought ads providing “cover” to lawmakers who supported the unpopular bill, while attacking those who opposed it. Then, when a repeal campaign got underway in July 2019, Generation Now financed an ugly campaign in opposition that included misleading, anti-Chinese commercials and in some cases, outright assault of petition circulators, witnesses testified.
And because Generation Now was a 501(c)(4) dark money group, it didn’t have to report its donors. That means the public couldn’t know that the huge effort to pass and protect the bailout was secretly being bankrolled by the company that stood to benefit most from it.
While FirstEnergy was pumping money into Generation Now, Longstreth used more than $500,000 from it to pay Householder’s personal bills. Stevens, Householder’s attorney, on Tuesday said it was a loan and reminded jurors that legal papers were drawn up to that effect. But Painter on Wednesday reminded them that “Mr. Longstreth told you he tried to get Mr. Householder to sign them, but there was always a delay.”
Defense lawyers argued that while some of the activities in support of House Bill 6 might seem grubby, there’s nothing illegal about them. Borges’ lawyer, Karl Schneider, also argued that his client couldn’t have been involved in racketeering — in part because he and Householder were old enemies and also because Borges wasn’t involved in any of the early stages of the alleged conspiracy.
To refute that, Painter divided what she called a four-year conspiracy into “a story in three parts:”
- Getting the power — The period from 2016 through 2018, during which friendly candidates were recruited and elected using FirstEnergy money to make Householder speaker in January 2019.
- Using the power — Passage of the bailout law, House Bill 6, in July 2019, and beating back a repeal attempt that failed the following October, again using FirstEnergy money.
- Keeping the power — An effort Householder for which started raising money from FirstEnergy and other utilities in late 2019 and into 2020. It was aimed at changing term limit rules in the Ohio Constitution so he could possibly stay speaker for another 16 years, prosecutors said.
Painter said that Borges didn’t need to know about or participate in the entire conspiracy to be a part of it. She said it was enough that he was paid with dollars that originated with Generation Now to pressure Attorney General Dave Yost to keep the repeal off the ballot and to pay for inside information about the repeal effort.
The prosecutor said whether Borges and Householder were friends was beside the point; their relationship was based on something else.
“It’s not about their liking each other,” she said. “It’s about keeping Larry Householder in power so all the pigs can feed at the trough.”
Deliberations are expected to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.
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