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Feds cast former Ohio speaker as manipulative, corrupt in closing arguments

Prosecutors made their final push to dispel Larry Householder’s family-friendly image and told jurors that “a mountain of evidence” shows he took bribes from an energy company.

CINCINNATI (CN) — Larry Householder was a ruthless and savvy political operative who used connections with the owner of two nuclear power plants to funnel over $61 million into a dark money nonprofit and fund his campaigns, federal prosecutors argued in closing arguments of the former Ohio speaker’s bribery trial.

A trial that has spanned more than six weeks neared its end Tuesday when prosecutors and Householder’s defense team provided the jury with vastly different portrayals of the former state representative and two-time speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Singer neatly summarized the government’s case at the outset of the prosecution's closing arguments.

"Larry Householder received almost $60 million from FirstEnergy bank accounts," he said. "It was secret, it was undisclosed, it was unreported ... and FirstEnergy expected legislation in return. This is called bribery."

Weeks of evidence from the prosecution included expansive testimony from FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel about wiretapped phone calls, text messages and the organization of Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit set up to discretely accept donations for Team Householder.

Several co-defendants who already pleaded guilty, including Jeff Longstreth and Juan Cespedes, also testified about Householder’s close relationships with FirstEnergy Corporation executives Chuck Jones and Mike Dowling.

Singer named Longstreth and Cespedes, along with Householder, co-defendant Matt Borges and Householder's "proxy" Neal Clark, as the five members of a racketeering enterprise during Tuesday's closing arguments.

"Their purpose was to increase the power of Householder and to enrich the members of the enterprise," the prosecutor said.

Regarding personal benefits, Singer told the jury Householder received over $500,000, while Longstreth pocketed more than $2.5 million, Clark received $365,000, Cespedes over $600,000, and Borges over $360,000 in just a six-month period.

Householder was handed a check for $400,000 from FirstEnergy during a meeting in October 2018, which got the ball rolling on the eventual passage of bailout legislation known as House Bill 6, according to the government.

The first massive payment, along with another $100,000 donation, was used to bankroll several candidates who would support Householder in his bid for speaker and back the bill that would bail out two FirstEnergy nuclear plants.

Longstreth loaned Householder hundreds of thousands of dollars to make repairs to a home he owned in Naples, Florida, and to pay off legal bills associated with a lawsuit filed against a Householder-owned coal company.

A flight on FirstEnergy's private jet to Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump's inauguration, dinners at fancy steakhouses during that trip, and visits to the company's corporate box during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series were added perks used to convince Householder to prioritize energy legislation, according to the government's case.

For his part, Householder alleged he always intended to pay for the flight – and did so several weeks after a critical article was published in The Dayton Daily News – and denied having eaten at any steakhouses in Washington, despite testimony from Wetzel that included metadata from a photo in an alleyway immediately next to one of the restaurants.

"He did not tell the truth in his testimony about the trip to Washington, D.C.," Singer told the jury. "[His story] is completely contradicted by the evidence you've seen."

The government's attorney urged the jury to use common sense and emphasized Householder flew on FirstEnergy's private jet, stayed in a hotel it paid for, and that upon his return, "the money started pouring in."

The prosecution laid out the four elements of the single Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act count and spent nearly three hours trying to convince jurors it had proved them beyond a reasonable doubt.

Included in the charge, the government must prove an enterprise existed, the enterprise engaged in interstate commerce, the defendant was engaged with or employed by the enterprise, and that the enterprise engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity.

Racketeering activity can include bribery and money laundering, among other things, and Householder can still be convicted even if he did not personally engage in those actions.

The jury was given over 70 pages of instructions Monday, but Singer simplified its job in his arguments.

"You have been presented a mountain of evidence," the attorney said, "[but] this case comes down to this: what does your common sense tell you was happening? What was the purpose of all that money?"

Householder's defense team pushed back on the government's narrative during its summation of the case and tried desperately to spit-polish the image of its client.

"Larry Householder believed that [HB 6] was good policy," attorney Steve Bradley told the jury, "and it was consistent with his long-held political views on energy generation in the state of Ohio."

Bradley emphasized that Householder had discussed crafting a piece of legislation to save the nuclear power plants "well before" any of the events depicted during the trial.

"How can House Bill 6 be the result of a bribery scheme when a week after he meets [FirstEnergy CEO] Chuck Jones, he's expressing an interest in moving forward with this legislation?" he asked the jury.

Householder's legal team was unafraid to confront prosecution testimony and evidence of the alleged genesis of the scheme during the Washington inauguration trip, and instead claimed it did not happen.

Bradley recounted the "vivid" testimony of Longstreth about a Jan. 18, 2017, dinner at a steakhouse that described Householder "whispering" with Jones at the other end of a long table, but then assured the jury it could not be true.

He cited evidence in the record that Jones did not fly to the nation's capital until Jan. 19, as well as phone records that showed a call made from Florida at 8 p.m. on the night of the alleged dinner.

"I encourage you, I urge you to scrutinize every page [of the exhibits]," he told the jury.

Bradley depicted Longstreth and Cespedes, the other cooperating witness, as eager to do whatever it took to avoid jailtime, and also accused the government of conducting a "woefully inadequate investigation."

The defense attorney pointed out a number of individuals mentioned throughout the case – politicians, lobbyists and executives alike – were not interviewed by the FBI and were not called as witnesses.

"They only want half of the story and, by extension, they only want to present half of the story to you," he told the jury. "That is government bias on full display."

The trial, which began in January, has had its share of controversy, including allegations of judicial bias by Householder's attorneys, one of whom stopped attending proceedings shortly after the claims were made.

Several jurors contracted Covid-19 and had to be dismissed during the early stages of the prosecution's case, while the final day of Householder's testimony was paused briefly when a spectator in the gallery had a seizure and required medical attention.

Federal investigators call the case the largest bribery scheme in the state's history.

Attorneys for Borges began the presentation of their closing arguments at the end of the day Tuesday, and the government will make brief rebuttal arguments Wednesday before the case is submitted to the jury.

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