Prosecutors now say his push for the bailout — as well as his rise to one of the state’s most powerful political offices — was the result of a sprawling, $60 million bribery scheme that prompted many of Ohio’s top Republicans to call for Householder’s resignation into Wednesday morning.
In an 82-page federal complaint unsealed on Tuesday, prosecutors accused him and four others of spinning up a “criminal enterprise” that collected $60 million in dark money from a struggling energy company.
The company was not named in the complaint, but it appears to be Energy Harbor, an Akron-based power firm previously named FirstEnergy Solutions that owns the two northern Ohio nuclear plants receiving the bailout.
Hours after Householder was arrested Tuesday at his farm near Columbus, many of the state’s top Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine, called on the lawmaker to resign.
“Because of the nature of these charges, it will be impossible for Speaker Householder to effectively lead the Ohio House of Representatives,” DeWine wrote on Twitter. “This is a sad day for Ohio.”
While leaving federal court Tuesday, the speaker told a reporter for WSYX that he does not plan to leave office.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, said Householder and his associates campaigned for the bailout in exchange for hefty payments they used to fund his bid for speaker, enrich themselves and hide their scheme.
“This is likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio,” U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said at a news conference. “This was bribery, plain and simple. This was a quid pro quo. This was pay to play.”
Besides Householder, four others — his adviser Jeffrey Longstreth, former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges, and lobbyists Neil Clark and Juan Cespedes — were each charged with a racketeering conspiracy and taken into custody Tuesday. They each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The lawmaker, who represents a district east of Columbus, first arrived at the state House more than two decades ago. He was elected as House speaker in 2001 and stepped down almost four years later because of term limits. At the time, he and several aides were being investigated for possible money laundering. The federal probe was closed without any charges being filed.
After winning his old seat back in 2016, his profile shot up quickly. Amid infighting among Ohio Republicans, he embarked on a multimillion-dollar bid for the speaker’s gavel less than two years later.
DeVillers, the U.S. attorney, said there was a “strong inference” in the complaint that the alleged bribery scheme began when Householder reached out to FirstEnergy during his campaign, rather than the other way around.
“This enterprise went looking for someone to bribe them,” DeVillers said.
FirstEnergy, which was struggling to compete with cleaner, newer energy sources, appeared to be a promising target. Already facing a grim future, the utility had been engaging in talks with state officials over a possible bailout for its coal and nuclear plants.
That’s where Householder came in to help. In the 2018 election cycle, millions in the company’s funds bankrolled the campaigns of 21 state House candidates, the complaint said. DeVillers called the group “Team Householder” because they helped push the politician across the finish line in his race for speaker.
Those lawmakers also proved instrumental in helping FirstEnergy. In July 2019, all but one voted for House Bill 6, which included the nuclear bailout and also slashed subsidies for renewable energy, prosecutors said.
As consumer advocates and the natural gas industry started a referendum last summer to challenge the law, a nonprofit political group called Generation Now launched a forceful campaign to quash that effort, including hiring people to intimidate petition canvassers. Among dozens of mailers and TV ads, one warned that China was trying to take over Ohio’s power system, the complaint said.
Prosecutors say it was another part of the plot. Generation Now was an “entity secretly controlled by Householder,” the complaint said, receiving payments “akin to bags of cash” that, unlike regular campaign contributions, were “not regulated, not reported, not subject to public scrutiny."
Of the $63 million involved in the alleged scheme, as much as $38 million went to the nonprofit group. The company also wired $500,000 into Householder’s personal accounts, including more than $100,000 that was spent on the speaker’s residence in Florida, the complaint said.
In a statement to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for Energy Harbor said it was reviewing the complaint and would cooperate with government investigators.
Tuesday’s arrests are only the start for the corruption saga. Ohio’s secretary of state, Frank LaRose, said he had alerted the state’s elections commission over 19 possible violations of campaign finance law tied to the alleged scheme. DeVillers said federal agents would continue to interview possible witnesses and execute search warrants.
“We’re not done with this case,” he said. “There are a lot of federal agents knocking on a lot of doors.”