COLUMBUS — The powerful Republican speaker of the Ohio House and four associates were arrested Tuesday in a $60 million federal bribery case connected to a taxpayer-funded bailout of Ohio’s two nuclear power plants.
Hours after FBI agents raided Speaker Larry Householder’s farm, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers described the ploy as “likely the largest bribery scheme ever perpetrated against the state of Ohio.”
Householder was one of the driving forces behind the nuclear plants’ financial rescue, which added a new fee to every electricity bill in the state and directed over $150 million a year through 2026 to the plants near Cleveland and Toledo.
Also arrested were Householder adviser Jeffrey Longstreth, longtime Statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matthew Borges and Juan Cespedes, co-founder of The Oxley Group, a Columbus-based consulting firm.
Previous attempts to bail out the nuclear plants had stalled in the Legislature before Householder became speaker. Months after taking over, he rolled out a new plan to subsidize the plants and eliminate renewable energy incentives. The proposal was approved a year ago despite opposition from many business leaders and the manufacturing industry.
Generation Now, a group that successfully fought an effort to put a repeal of the bailout law on Ohio’s ballot, was charged as a corporation in the case.
A criminal complaint filed by the FBI says Generation Now received $60 million from an unidentified company over the past three years. In exchange, Householder and the other defendants worked to pass the nuclear plant bailout and block attempts to overturn it.
Householder and the others used the money to preserve and expand his political power in Ohio, the complaint said.
FirstEnergy Corp., whose former subsidiaries owned the plants, donated heavily to Householder’s campaigns and his backers in the Ohio House. The utility’s political action committee contributed $25,000 to Householder’s campaign in 2018, according to an analysis by Common Cause Ohio, a government watchdog.
Householder flew to President Donald Trump’s inauguration on the company’s plane in 2016.
FirstEnergy Solutions, the subsidiary which has since changed its name to Energy Harbor and now operates the nuclear plants as an independent company, spent millions on lobbying and campaign contributions while trying to persuade federal and state officials to give the nuclear plants a lifeline.
FBI agents were at Householder’s farm in Glenford on Tuesday morning in rural Perry County. FBI spokesman Todd Lindgren said only that they were carrying out “law enforcement activity.” The Perry County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it was assisting.
Attempts to reach Householder, Borges and Clark were unsuccessful. A message seeking comment was also left with the House communications office.
The defendants appeared in court and were not required to enter a plea. The judge ordered Householder released on his own recognizance and directed him not to obtain a passport, to restrict his travel to the southern half of Ohio and not to contact any other defendants. The judge also ordered him to remove any guns from his home.
Similar restrictions were imposed on Longstreth. The next hearing was tentatively set for Aug. 6.
Borges has increasingly been on the outs with the Ohio Republican Party establishment since it was taken over by devotees of President Donald Trump. He was recently censured by the party’s central committee, including for helping launch a PAC in June to turn out GOP voters for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. The PAC is backed by a group of prominent Republican operatives that include a former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.
Clark is one of Ohio’s best connected lobbyists, representing a high-powered stable of clients from the pharmaceutical, gambling and alcoholic beverage industries, among others.
Cespedes is a former investment officer with the Ohio Treasurer’s Office who was appointed by then-Gov. John Kasich as commissioner for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, where he oversees a team effort to stop discrimination in the state. His term ends July 29.
Householder is a veteran state lawmaker who’s in his second stint as speaker. He held the same position from 2001 to 2004. He left state politics more than a decade ago because of term limits and returned in 2016 and took up a contentious fight to win back the chamber’s top job.
At the time he left office, he and several top advisers were under federal investigation for alleged money laundering and irregular campaign practices. The government closed the case without filing charges.
Householder is the second Ohio House speaker to come under investigation in just over two years.
Former Speaker Rosenberger
Former Republican Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, of Clinton County, was investigated in 2018 amid an FBI inquiry into his travel, lavish lifestyle and a condo he rented from a wealthy GOP donor.
Rosenberger, who has maintained he broke no laws, has not been charged, but the investigation remains open, the AP reported Tuesday.
The AP reported in February 2020 that social media posts of previous Ohio House Speaker Rosenberger of Clinton County “show him traveling to destinations around the world even as a federal investigation into his travel and spending while in office remains open.
“The Dayton Daily News reports an Instagram feed for Republican Cliff Rosenberger includes dozens of photos showing him kayaking in Antarctica, flying over Iguazu Falls between Brazil and Argentina and visiting Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio and England,” the AP stated then.
Rosenberger resigned abruptly in 2018 after saying he was aware the FBI was asking questions about his activities and he had protectively hired a criminal defense attorney. While speaker, Rosenberger took trips, sometimes with lobbyists present, to Europe, Israel, Iceland and various U.S. cities, as well as renting a luxury Columbus condo from a wealthy GOP donor, the AP reported then.
Rosenberger listed no employment on a required ethics disclosure statement filed in May 2019.
“I have been a private citizen for almost two years, and my personal life is not newsworthy,” he said in a text message, according to AP.
In February, his attorney, David Axelrod, declined to speculate on Rosenberger’s finances. He said the formerly powerful politician has done nothing wrong and the FBI should bring its probe to an end.
No new details have become public since the Ohio House released a federal search warrant and subpeona in August 2018.
The News Journal contributed to this story.