BY: MARTY SCHLADEN – Ohio Capital Journal

Former House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford. Source: Ohio General Assembly.

CINCINNATI — Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder on Wednesday claimed that he never promised any legislative action to FirstEnergy in exchange for the tens of millions the company paid into a 501(c)(4) dark money group he controlled.

He also denied attending dinners in Washington, D.C., during Donald Trump’s inauguration during which other witnesses said he met with top FirstEnergy executives. 

And the former speaker denied that he demanded unquestioning loyalty from lawmakers whose elections he worked for. Instead, he said, he wanted them to be independent thinkers.

After sitting through federal court testimony since Jan. 23, Householder on Wednesday took the witness stand in his own defense. That’s considered by many lawyers to be a risky strategy because he will be subject to cross examination by prosecutors who are eager to catch the former speaker in a lie.

Householder, a Republican from Glenford, and former Ohio GOP chair Matt Borges are being tried on accusations of racketeering in a case that federal prosecutors have said is likely the biggest bribery and money laundering scandal in Ohio history. 

Householder is accused of masterminding a scheme to use $61 million in utility money to elect House members who would vote to make him speaker at the beginning of 2019. He led the effort to pass a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout of failing nuclear and coal plants the following July and then protected it from a repeal campaign that failed in October 2019. Prosecutors say the bailout was explicitly tied to FirstEnergy’s contributions.

On the stand, Householder introduced himself as a guy from Appalachia who had worked for years to protect Ohio’s energy independence. But he also made a number of statements prosecutors are likely to challenge.

One is that as it neared passage, the bailout law, House Bill 6, became the object of “misinformation” in commercials that he said were financed by the American Petroleum Institute. The nuclear reactors the law would subsidize couldn’t compete with natural gas, which Householder said the petroleum institute supported instead of nuclear power.

However, in his testimony, Householder didn’t point to anything specific that the group had misstated. Similarly, he complained of misinformation in a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial, but he didn’t point to anything specific, nor did he say whether he asked for a correction.

At the same time, the former speaker seemed guilty of some misinformation of his own.

Householder said one of the chief goals of House Bill 6 — dubbed the “Ohio Clean Air Program” — was to lower carbon emissions. But the bill provided hundreds of millions in subsidies to coal-burning plants owned by FirstEnergy subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions and other Ohio utilities.

Householder’s claimed concern for carbon emissions also seems to clash with earlier statements he made on the stand. He testified that he was president of a group that owned an Alabama coal mine and that during an earlier stint in the Ohio House, he worked to subsidize coal production.

Householder also tried to soften his image after three former House Republicans portrayed the former speaker as a heavy-handed autocrat who demanded loyalty at all times. He pointed out that even though they didn’t vote to make him speaker and they voted against HB 6, he didn’t remove Reps. Laura Lanese and Dave Greenspan from their leadership positions.

In secret FBI recordings played earlier in the trial, lobbyist Neil Clark described Householder as ruthless and said he told Greenspan that because the lawmaker had opposed HB 6, Householder would never allow legislation Greenspan wanted to move forward. What Householder wanted, witnesses testified, were “casket carriers” — people so loyal that they would stay with him until he died and then lower his casket into the ground.

But Householder on Tuesday said he didn’t want blind loyalty, he wanted independence. As for wanting casket carriers, that meant “I didn’t want enemies. I wanted friends,” Householder testified.

Householder also disputed some of the basic factual allegations that had been made against him. 

He denied testimony from former aide Jeffrey Longstreth that in an Oct. 10, 2018 meeting, lobbyist Robert Klaffky slid a $400,000 check from FirstEnergy Services across a conference table and under Householder’s hand. It was a FirstEnergy Services employee who gave him the check and there was no conference table to slide it across, Householder said.

Even if that’s true, it’s hard to square that account with other parts of Householder’s testimony.

At issue in the case is whether Householder pushed the bailout legislation in exchange for all the millions he received from FirstEnergy. He said he had little involvement in Generation Now, the main 501(c)(4) dark money group the company paid into and which supported Householder-friendly candidates and ferociously attacked their opponents.

Householder said his understanding was that Generation Now was “a vehicle that would educate the public on issues that were important to Ohio.”

But on Wednesday, Householder said he accepted a $400,000 check from FirstEnergy Solutions that was made out to Generation Now, which was created and controlled by Longstreth, his underling. The former speaker conceded that it was a huge contribution — and the jury might find it hard to credit that he played such a passive role in the group’s activities.

Householder also denied Longstreth’s account of a dinner during Trump’s 2017 inaugural. Longstreth testified that he sat at one end of a long table in a crowded steakhouse with FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling, while Householder sat at the other with CEO Chuck Jones. Longstreth said he couldn’t hear the conversation at the other end of the table, but he did hear Dowling instruct him to set up an organization that could accept “undisclosed and unlimited contributions” from FirstEnergy and its subsidiary. 

Householder testified that he went to the inaugural with his wife and several of his sons and only briefly saw Jones and Dowling, but didn’t dine with them. Instead, he and his family went to the inauguration, the parade that followed and attended functions where they were photographed with such luminaries as former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight, Householder said.

However, Householder said he and one of his sons flew to D.C. and back on a FirstEnergy jet. 

The former speaker testified that on March 29, 2019 — more than two months later — he wrote a check for $2,647 reimbursing the company for the flight. But he didn’t say why it took him that long to make the payment or what prompted him to do so.

In addition, paying for flights on private jets crashed pretty hard against another bit of Householder’s testimony Wednesday — that he is very frugal.

“Anybody who’s been around me knows I’m cheap,” Householder said. “I drive a 2001 GMC Sonoma and I don’t like to spend money.”

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.

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