Ohio Political Operatives Plead Guilty in $60M Bribery Scheme

Then-Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder sits at the head of a legislative session in Columbus on Oct. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

CINCINNATI (CN) — Two co-defendants of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder each pleaded guilty Thursday to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy, which could put more pressure on the ousted lawmaker to cut a deal with prosecutors in his bribery case.

Householder, 61, was arrested in July and arraigned on federal corruption charges related to an alleged $60 million bribery scheme involving the bailout of two failing nuclear power plants operated by FirstEnergy Corporation. Prosecutors say the bribe money was funneled through a nonprofit called Generation Now.

Just over a week after his arrest, the Republican lawmaker was removed from his position as speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives by a unanimous 90-0 vote.

Juan Cespedes, a lobbyist, and Jeffrey Longstreth, a campaign and political strategist, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Timothy Black on Thursday, and acknowledged the pleas carry a possible prison sentence of 20 years.

Cespedes, 41, and Longstreth, 44, whose hearings were held separately, both waived their right to attend in person and joined via videoconference.

In his plea agreement, signed on Oct. 6, Cespedes admitted he and others “orchestrat[ed] payments on multiple occasions to Generation Now … in return for specific official action by Householder relating to the passage and preservation of legislation that would go into effect and save the operation of two nuclear power plants in Ohio.”

The statement of facts in the agreement also included an admission that the conspirators made payments to organizers of a ballot campaign to overturn the taxpayer bailout of the power plants “to improperly discharge their campaign duties and to obtain inside information … to defeat the ballot campaign.”

During the hearing, Black asked Cespedes about his education and sobriety to ensure he entered into the agreement knowingly and voluntarily.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer read a summary of the plea agreement before Cespedes’ attorney Mark Collins summarized the statement of facts on behalf of his client.

The judge accepted Cespedes’ plea, released him on bond and stayed sentencing until the rest of the case is resolved.

Longstreth’s plea hearing followed the same outline as that of his co-defendant, although the statement of facts differed.

In his plea deal, signed on Oct. 23, Longstreth admitted to knowingly organizing Generation Now at the behest of Householder to “be used as a mechanism to receive undisclosed donations” for Householder’s campaign for Ohio House speaker.

Longstreth also acknowledged that he managed the nonprofit’s bank accounts and made “financial transactions that were designed to conceal the nature, source, ownership, and control of the payments made by Company A to Generation Now.”

During the hearing, Black noted that Longstreth’s attorney, Robert Krapenc, also represents Generation Now in the same criminal action and advised Longstreth of his right to separate counsel.

When asked by the judge about his other client, Krapenc told Black there is no conflict of interest.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter read the elements of the RICO conspiracy offense on behalf of the government and summarized the remainder of the plea agreement for the court.

As with Cespedes, Black accepted Longstreth’s guilty plea, released him on bond and delayed sentencing.

Cespedes and Longstreth both waived their rights to appeal the sentences eventually handed down by Black, so long as they do not exceed the statutory maximum.

Thursday’s pleas were the first in the case against Householder, and it is unclear whether the remaining defendants in the case – lobbyist Neil Clark and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matthew Borges – will agree to similar deals or proceed to trial.

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