Tuesday, June 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Former Ohio House speaker testifies in his own defense at federal bribery trial

Larry Householder denied threatening fellow lawmakers to pass a controversial nuclear power plant bailout and portrayed himself as a family man concerned for his fellow Ohioans.

CINCINNATI (CN) — Six weeks into his trial on a federal corruption charge, former Republican state lawmaker Larry Householder, who was ousted as head of the Ohio House of Representatives following his arrest and indictment, testified Wednesday in his own defense and contradicted much of the evidence presented by the prosecution.

Householder, who has twice held the position of speaker of the House in the Buckeye State, was charged with racketeering conspiracy for his role in the passage of House Bill 6, a piece of legislation used to put taxpayers on the hook for a $1 billion bailout of two failing nuclear power plants.

FirstEnergy Corporation, the owner of the plants, allegedly funneled more than $61 million through a "dark money" organization known as Generation Now to ensure Householder took charge of the House, passed the legislation and defeated a referendum that could have nullified the law.

Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, was named in the indictment alongside several other lobbyists, but he and Householder were the only defendants to plead not guilty. Borges is accused of bribing an official who worked on the campaign to repeal HB 6 and will present his defense once Householder is through with his testimony.

The trial opened nearly six weeks ago and has included weeks of prosecution testimony not only from the FBI agent who worked the case, but co-defendants who negotiated plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation.

Evidence included text messages between the defendants, lobbyists and FirstEnergy executives, as well as details about a meeting in October 2018 during which Householder was given a $400,000 check to support state representative candidates who would back HB 6.

Senior U.S. District Judge Timothy Black denied the defendants' motion for acquittal when the prosecution rested their case, and Householder testified Wednesday as the final witness in his own defense.

Defense attorneys began with a line of questioning about Householder's early life in Perry County and focused on his connections to the energy industry, which developed early on in his political career.

Householder told the jury he has always had an interest in ensuring Ohio can produce its own energy supply and founded a company to deal with coal slurry ponds and "help the environment."

In a move intended to directly contradict the prosecution's claim Householder "wined and dined" with FirstEnergy executives during former President Donald Trump's inauguration weekend in 2017, Householder led the jury through a step-by-step history of his weekend in Washington for the event.

Householder denied making any reservations or eating dinner at several D.C. steakhouses mentioned during the prosecution's case and detailed a trip that included a Trace Adkins concert, a stop at the Inauguration Day parade, and a party at the home of Rex Elsass, founder of the Strategy Group for Media, a Columbus-based consulting firm.

His attorneys also submitted bank statements to show a check made out to FirstEnergy for the use of its private jet.

Testimony shifted to the creation and operation of Generation Now, the dark money fundraising organization, and Householder denied knowing where the nonprofit did its banking.

"It was a vehicle that would educate the public on issues that were important for Ohio and support candidates who supported those issues," he told the jury.

In his fundraising and recruitment efforts to be elected speaker, Householder said he never asked potential House candidates for loyalty or votes on specific pieces of legislation.

"I generally look for candidates who are family people," he said.

Eventually, the questioning of the defendant moved to the October 2018 meeting with FirstEnergy, one Householder said he didn't want to take but eventually scheduled out of respect for his friend and lobbyist Robert Klaffky.

Householder testified he was handed an envelope with a check, which he opened, but made no promises about any legislation.

The creation of HB 6 after Householder was elected speaker in January 2019 was the final topic of discussion on Wednesday, and the former state representative reiterated he devised the legislation to help the people of Ohio.

Householder told the jury he never heard anything about FirstEnergy's wants regarding any potential energy legislation and that he created HB 6 to save jobs and ensure Ohio could generate lower-emission energy for the foreseeable future.

He also denied retaliating against Republican members of the Ohio Legislature who voted against the bill and said on multiple occasions he returned to the statehouse for a second time to "make friends, not create enemies."

Klaffky was the first witness to testify Wednesday and also detailed the meeting involving the now notorious $400,000 check.

The president of Van Meter, Ashbrook, and Associates, a Columbus-based consulting firm, Klaffky was advised of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by Judge Black prior to his testimony but chose to take the stand.

Klaffky disputed the previous testimony of fellow lobbyist Juan Cespedes – who was charged alongside Householder and has already pleaded guilty – and denied the check was part of a "pay-to-play" scheme when asked by defense attorney Rob Glickman.

"Do you think an agreement was reached between Householder and FirstEnergy Solutions?" Glickman asked. "Did you witness 'pay-to-play' during that meeting?"

"No," Klaffky answered.

He admitted to the jury the payment made by FirstEnergy to Householder was a "high-risk, high-reward investment," but was quick to clarify how he used the term.

"The payments were investments in a political sense, but not financially," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Singer emphasized Klaffky's close personal relationship with Householder during his cross-examination, including that he was part of the speaker's "kitchen cabinet," a group of his closest advisers.

"You are working with Householder to get him elected speaker," Singer said, "and on a parallel track, you are working with FirstEnergy Solutions to get this legislation through."

Expected witness Geoff Verhoff, an attorney with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld, indicated he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and did not appear, while the former speaker's legal team also canceled the appearance of Steve Cuckler, a member of the Delaware County Board of Elections.

Black told members of the jury to "go hang with your peeps" when he dismissed them for the day. The testimony of Householder is expected to resume on Thursday.

Categories: Criminal Government Politics Regional Trials

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.