Analysis: Householder's bribery trial is the largest in Ohio history. It may not be the last
The guilt or innocence of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges in what is by far the biggest bribery case in the 220-year history of Ohio is important — but that may not be the point.
It will take federal prosecutors weeks to lay out the complex charges against those two once-powerful figures in Ohio politics — charges being prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law usually reserved for the prosecution of mobsters.
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The prosecution says it can prove a $60 million pay-to-play scheme against the two Republicans politicians with the use of guilty pleas from two of their alleged accomplices, box loads of documents and a 49-page statement from FirstEnergy, based in Akron, in which the utility admits to funding the scheme in exchange for helping Householder become speaker and the passage of a $1.3 billion bailout bill — House Bill 6 — meant to prop up FirstEnergy's two financially troubled nuclear power plants.
The prosecution may succeed or it may fail. Householder and Borges are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — in this case, before a jury in the federal courtroom of Judge Timothy Black here in Cincinnati.
Guilty or not, though, the days when these two wielded power in Ohio politics are over — particularly Householder, who rose from obscurity as a politician in tiny Perry County to become a force in Ohio politics.
Both men will be consigned to the dustbin of history once this is over.
What is more important is the defense their lawyers will mount in the weeks to come. That defense, if successful, could reverberate throughout American politics, far behind a federal courtroom in downtown Cincinnati.
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Steven Bradley, a member of Householder's legal team, presented an opening statement Monday in which he made it clear the defense believes that no laws were broken and that this was just business as usual in politics.
There was, Bradley said, no quid pro quo with FirstEnergy to get HB 6 passed.
"You will see and hear no evidence of such an agreement,'' Bradley told the jury. "Larry was never bribed to advance the legislation."
FirstEnergy said company subsidiaries provided the $60 million through Generation Now, a non-profit that has also pleaded guilty. The money from the Generation Now fund was used to buy ads for politicians who would support Householder for speaker and to put money in the pockets of the members of the scheme.
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Householder is alleged to have received about $2 million from the fund — money prosecutors say was used to help him settle a lawsuit, make repairs to a Florida vacation home and pay off credit card debt.
The money that went to pro-Householder candidates, Bradley said, were "ordinary campaign contributions."
Householder, Bradley said, "supported HB 6 because he believes it was legislation that benefited all Ohioans."
'The whole campaign finance system is on trial'
Defense lawyers in the case say what happened was protected by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC. That 5-4 decision of the court said that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the restriction of independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, unions and other groups.
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law, said he doubts a jury would buy the Citizens United argument. Especially, he said, if the prosecution clearly establishes there was a quid pro quo.
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"You have to argue something, but this seems like a stretch," Hoffmeister said. 'It's a good try. But I don't see it working."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelder, in her opening statement to the jury Monday, said the evidence would show that Householder secretly controlled the Generation Now fund.
"Larry Householder sold the Statehouse,'' Glatfelder said. "He ripped off the people he was elected to serve. Millions of dollars of bribe payments to pay for his political and personal gain."
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio and a long-time advocate of campaign finance reform, told WVXU that the lack of laws shining light on dark money in politics could lead to more Householder-type scandals.
"This is what I worry about," Turcer said. "The courts have given free rein to corporations who want to set up these quid pro quo deals.
"Neither the feds nor the legislature in the statehouse have given us a law that report where this money came from and where it goes," Turcer said. "We have not done anything to create a system to make sure this doesn't happen again. There are no guardrails in place.
"The whole campaign finance system is on trial in Cincinnati," Turcer said.
And that means only one thing — we could find ourselves back in court someday watching the trial of the next Larry Householder.