Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder gives the thumbs up as he enters the courthouse where he is expected to testify Wednesday, March 1, 2023. Photo from WEWS.
BY: MARTY SCHLADEN – Ohio Capital Journal
The cross examination prompted some observers to say Householder badly damaged his defense against federal racketeering charges by using the risky tactic of testifying in his own defense. It marked the end of the evidentiary phase of the trial. Closing arguments will begin Tuesday.
Householder and former Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are accused in a scheme to use $61 million in funds mostly from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder speaker and then to pass and protect a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily went to prop up a subsidiary’s failing nuclear plants.
Over more than five weeks of testimony, prosecutors have put on evidence they say proves Householder passed the bailout in return for massive 501(c)(4) “dark money” contributions and for more than $500,000 in personal benefits. Perhaps as a sign that they didn’t believe things were going well, Householder and his defense team took the controversial step of putting him on the witness stand on Wednesday.
Defense attorneys are usually reluctant to put their clients on the stand because prosecutors can use cross examination to catch them in lies. That seemed to be Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter’s goal as she cross-examined Householder on Thursday.
Glatfelter played secret recordings of conversations that jarringly contradicted Householder’s claims that as speaker, he wanted to be a peacemaker. Under its earlier leadership, Householder said, the House Republican Caucus was too “divisive.”
“I didn’t want enemies. I wanted friends,” Householder said Wednesday, trying to refute claims that he was an autocratic leader who demanded unstinting loyalty from lawmakers and contributors.
Glatfelter played a wiretap recording of a conversation between Householder and Neil Clark, a lobbyist who was charged in the conspiracy and later died by suicide.
“We like war and you know that Neil,” Householder told Clark. Then referring to Republican Reps. Dave Greenspan and Scott Lipps, whom Householder considered insufficiently supportive, he said, “If you f**k with me, I’ll f**k with your kids.”
The former speaker had earlier denied being involved in using dark, or “C4” money to make attack ads, but when Clark asked “You’re talking about C4 money?” Householder responded, “Yeah.”
When Glatfelter asked Householder if he punished contributors and lawmakers who supported his foes instead of him, Householder said, “I can’t think of any consequences” he had meted out to non-supporters.
Then Glatfelter played a recording between Householder and Clark in which they discussed what to do about non-supporters.
“We can f**k them over later,” Householder said.
In the dark about dark money
The prosecutor also didn’t buy Householder’s claim of general ignorance about the operations of Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) dark money group into which FirstEnergy pumped scores of millions to pass and protect the bailout legislation. The entity was created and controlled by Jeffrey Longstreth, Householder’s underling, a few weeks after Householder flew with FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling to Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration aboard FirstEnergy’s corporate jet.
Householder claimed that he was so new to the dark money game that Longstreth had to explain how such groups worked.
And, as he did through much of the cross examination, Householder answered questions repetitively and seemingly grudgingly. When asked by Glatfelter what the former speaker thought the purpose of Generation Now was, Householder responded, “To educate the public on important issues and support candidates who support those issues.”
Records and testimony from Longstreth — who pleaded guilty in the case — indicated that dark money from Generation Now was used to make and run ferocious attack ads against opponents of “Team Householder.” Then it was used to claim without evidence that an effort to repeal the bailout was really a Chinese effort to take over the Ohio energy grid.
Because such groups don’t have to disclose their contributors, FirstEnergy was able to keep its fingerprints off its involvement in passing and protecting legislation of such interest to the company.
Prosecutors also played recordings and showed written messages indicating that Householder was involved in planning Generation Now-funded messages. But asked by Glatfelter several times on Thursday what he believed the dark money group actually did, Householder tried not to move far from his initial answer.
The group was for “educating the public on issues that are important to Ohio and me and supporting candidates who support those issues,” he said.
Champagne travel for a “country Republican”
The former speaker and the prosecutor also clashed over Householder’s flight to the Trump inaugural. Householder and his son were invited to do so by Cleveland businessman Tony George.
Glatfelter asked what George’s relationship with FirstEnergy was. Householder said George “knew Chuck” — referring to FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones.
Incredulous, Glatfelter said, “There’s a difference between knowing somebody and having access to his company jet, right?”
Householder said that the only reason Dowling, the FirstEnergy vice president, flew with the group is because George said someone from the company had to be on the flight. The implication, apparently, was that the trip wasn’t part of the plan for a FirstEnergy bailout.
Householder said he agreed to take the flight to save time. But traveling by private jet might not fit with his explanation earlier in the day of the difference between him and Borges.
“He’s a country club Republican and I’m more of a country Republican,” Householder said.
The former speaker also claimed that he didn’t intend to fly free.
“From day 1, I was going to pay for that flight,” he said.
More than two months later, Householder paid FirstEnergy $2,647. He said he paid then because that’s how long it took for FirstEnergy to send him a bill — not because the Dayton Daily News had written a story about the flight and the questionable appearance that it made.
That Householder would take a private jet without knowing what the cost would be is difficult to square with another statement he made about himself when he testified a day earlier.
“Anybody who’s been around me knows I’m cheap,” Householder said. “I drive a 2001 GMC Sonoma and I don’t like to spend money.”
Glatfelter punched other holes in Householder’s attempts Wednesday to distance himself from FirstEnergy executives on the trip to the Trump inaugural. She showed that George reserved rooms at the same hotel for Householder and CEO Jones within a minute of each other and paid the same amount for both — $1,500.
Householder said he believed the Ohio Republican Party paid for his room.
Personal payments, questionable sources
Observers have said that one of the most damning kinds of evidence against Householder is that Longstreth had paid more than $500,000 to settle a lawsuit against the speaker, repair a house he owned in Florida, and to retire credit card debt. Longstreth said he had papers drawn up to formalize the payments as loans, but Householder never would sign them.
Householder said his plan was to pay Longstreth when the Florida house was sold. When it finally did sell — for nearly $700,000 — Householder said he couldn’t pay Longstreth because both had been arrested in July 2020 and he believed any payments to a co-defendant could be used against him. The former speaker said he planned to pay Longstreth when the case is over.
Householder also showed a curious lack of interest in the sources of Longstreth’s money.
Longstreth testified that he received millions in FirstEnergy money through Generation Now and into a separate account that he used to pay Householder’s debts, hire contractors, pay himself, and the like.
Glatfelter asked Householder where Longstreth got the money to pay Householder’s debts and to run the sweeping political operation.
“His business wasn’t my business,” Householder said of the man he hired to recruit candidates, get them elected, and then get them to vote to make him speaker.
Lack of disclosure
Glatfelter also took Householder to task for not disclosing debts and gifts in compliance with state ethics laws.
He didn’t disclose a $1.89 million judgment against him over a failed Alabama coal mine. Nor did he disclose 2016 World Series tickets that were given him at a discount from the going rate of $2,500 apiece, Glatfelter said. And he failed to report the $1,500 hotel room George got him for Trump’s inauguration.
Householder testified that his attorney filed the disclosures and that he had only “glanced over” them.
Glatfelter pointed him to the portion of the disclosures in which the filer says he or she knows the contents of the disclosure and has to swear it’s accurate — a legally binding attestation similar to the one Householder made before testifying. She asked Householder if the documents bore his electronic signature.
“I don’t even know what an electronic signature is,” he replied.
Pressed, Householder responded with several versions of, “I relied on the advice of my attorney.”
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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