Valley corruption seems puny
One lesson I’ve learned covering politics is when something leaves you wondering why, follow the money.
That’s what federal prosecutors did in uncovering what they said could be the largest public bribery scheme in Ohio history.
When the state Legislature chose last year to bail out two failing nuclear power plants with $1.3 billion coming from ratepayers while ending requirements that utility companies use more wind and solar, it made little sense.
Some legislators told me they supported it to save jobs at two nuclear plants, but that was a flimsy argument because it cost other energy sector jobs.
I was not surprised by the federal charges against Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others, including former state Republican Chairman Matt Borges, alleging their involvement in a scam and followup efforts to sabotage repeal the legislation, House Bill 6.
What surprised me, though, is the amount of money Householder and his co-defendants supposedly pocketed.
Covering politics in the Mahoning Valley for more than two decades, I’ve seen my share of public corruption. I’m used to careers ending over a few thousand dollars changing hands.
Lisa Antonini, former Mahoning County Democratic Party chairwoman and county treasurer, got five months of house arrest for not reporting $3,000. Former Trumbull County Commissioner James Tsagaris spent nine months in federal prison over $36,500. Ex-Mahoning County Common Pleas Court Judge Maureen Cronin got two years for $18,000.
There have been isolated local cases where amounts hit low six figures.
The alleged Householder scheme was hardly Valley money.
The criminal complaint contends the co-defendants received more than $60 million from unnamed Company A and 1-A.
But when a business is getting a $1.3 billion benefit, $60 million is a drop in the bucket.
And Householder was continuing to look for “legitimate” money.
The day after Householder was indicted, invitations arrived in Valley mailboxes for an Aug. 14 “belated birthday” fundraiser for him in Perry County. The tickets were $1,000 to $13,292 each. Those who’ve already paid aren’t likely to get refunds.
I first met Householder in 2000 as he lined up support for his first successful bid to be Ohio House speaker. He had an interest in an Ohio House race in Mahoning County between incumbent Republican Ron Hood and Democrat John Boccieri.
Hood was a three-term incumbent, and Boccieri beat him by 3.8 percent in one of the most-expensive state House races that year.
Republicans still controlled the House, and Householder was chosen speaker in 2001. He ruled with an iron fist and when his final term ended in 2004, he had a criminal investigation hanging over his head that eventually went away. Of note, Hood moved to Householder’s district and was elected to succeed him. Hood left and subsequently returned to the Ohio House, voting against HB 6. Householder went back to Perry County.
I next saw Householder at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Householder was delivering a speech to about 500 people inside the then-Quicken Loans Arena.
I was far from the stage and turned to Marc Kovac, another reporter now with The Columbus Dispatch, and said, “Larry Householder? What’s he doing here?” (This was in between me singing as the house band played, much to Kovac’s amusement.)
He told me Householder was running for an Ohio House seat again. I didn’t think much of it.
But after taking office in 2017, Householder set his sights on being speaker again, recruiting Republican candidates for about a dozen seats in the 2018 election.
He allegedly used money from “Company A” to help get those candidates elected as the company sought legislative support for the bailout.
After a lengthy internal Republican struggle, Householder brokered a deal with some Democrats — including those in the Valley — by saying he’d play nice with them and was named speaker in 2019.
Once in control, Householder pushed through HB 6.
Among others arrested, I know only Borges as he has been around state Republican politics for a long time and is the former state GOP chairman.
I last saw him as he promoted a drug price statewide ballot issue. Earlier that year, he lost his re-election bid for state chairman.
I asked how he was doing. He said losing the race was the best thing that ever happened to him, and he was enjoying being a lobbyist.
It turns out he may have been enjoying it too much.