Stalking, assault alleged in repeal fight over corrupt utility bailout in Ohio

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former state Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are on trial in federal court in Cincinnati.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.

CINCINNATI — Tens of millions didn’t just go to pay for a spate of nasty, xenophobic ads to stop a repeal of a corrupt utility bailout in 2019. Some of that money also paid people to stalk, harass and even assault workers who were gathering signatures to get the repeal onto the ballot, the head of the company that was gathering them testified on Tuesday.

The testimony opened the fourth week of the trial in which former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former state Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are accused of racketeering. They and others allegedly conspired to use $61 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy to make Householder Speaker in 2019 and then pass and protect House Bill 6 — a $1.3 billion bailout that primarily benefited nuclear and coal plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary, FirstEnergy Solutions.

In earlier days of testimony, federal prosecutors put on witnesses and played recordings indicating that Householder and his allies worked with current and former regulators to draft HB 6. Jurors also heard that Householder personally received more than $500,000 to pay credit card bills, finance home repairs and to settle a lawsuit, according to prosecutors.

Two of the prosecution witnesses called on Tuesday seemed to be intended to show the jury how grubby was the politics behind HB 6, regardless of its legality.

The Householder leadership team and HB 6 vote

One witness — a Republican — said that the bailout was a bad law that her constituents didn’t support and neither could she, in good conscience. Former State Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, testified that despite the fact she didn’t support Householder for speaker, he surprised her by making her part of his leadership team.

As the 2019 legislative session got underway, passage of HB 6 became the primary focus of the House even though a state budget was also being developed, Lanese said.

“This was sort of the only thing that was going on at the time,” Lanese said.

But as she examined the bailout bill, the lawmaker couldn’t get answers to some questions and what she did know about it, she didn’t like.

“To me, it was a very anti-free-market measure,” Lanese testified. “It seemed very unfair to my constituents and the rest of the state to have to pay this bailout.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a big bailout of a big energy company didn’t seem to be a political winner.

Lanese described how Householder and his allies had a hard time finding the votes to pass it through the House. In a meeting with Householder and the rest of the leadership team in the speaker’s office, Lanese said HB 6 was one vote shy of passage and she was the only “no” vote in the room.

“He turned to me and said, ‘Laura, I really need your vote,’” Lanese said, adding that she replied, “‘I’m sorry Mr. Speaker, I just can’t do it.’”

Describing the pressure, the lawmaker said she “lost sleep for months” over the vote and that as she mounted her reelection bid in 2020, funds dried up.

On cross examination, however, Householder attorney Robert Glickman pointed out that if Householder retaliated against Lanese, he didn’t do it very thoroughly. She kept her leadership post and most of her committee memberships despite her “no” vote on HB 6.

Once the General Assembly passed the law in July 2019 — and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it the same day — a fight to repeal it began almost immediately.

The repeal effort and harassment campaign against it

FirstEnergy and its subsidiary plowed tens of millions of dollars into a 501(c)(4) dark money group controlled by Householder to block the repeal. What followed were ugly, ubiquitous mailers and commercials claiming the effort to repeal HB 6 was really an attempt by the Chinese government to take over the Ohio energy grid. Those responsible for the ads didn’t produce any evidence to support their claims.

The ads have aged especially badly in light of spiking hate crimes against Asians during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the CEO of the firm hired to gather signatures to get a repeal on the ballot said the grubbiness extended beyond the xenophobic ads.

Michael Roberson of Advanced Micro Targeting said that the campaign to thwart the recall hired people to harass those who were circulating petitions and even voters considering signing them.

“I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been in politics most of my adult life,” Roberson, the 2018 Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, testified. “It was like a war zone out there. Our employees were stalked. They were harassed. They were intimidated. Some of them were assaulted. It was quite something.”

That wasn’t the only obstacle the repeal effort faced.

As part of earlier testimony, prosecutors showed a June 2019 text message from Borges in which Borges claimed to have spoken to Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Yost said he thought HB 6 was a bad law, but he didn’t plan to publicly oppose it because of Borges’ friendship and because FirstEnergy had supported Yost’s campaigns, Borges said.

Yost’s office said he wouldn’t comment on the claim because the trial is ongoing. But he did take a step that slowed the petition-gathering effort in the face of a tight deadline.

Under Ohio law, leaders of the attempted repeal had 90 days after the law’s enrollment to gather at least as many valid signatures as 6% of the number who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election — about 265,000 in 2019. But first, they had to submit a summary of the ballot language along with 1,000 valid signatures for review by the attorney general and the Ballot Board.

Yost rejected the first summary that was submitted and by the time a second was approved — along with another batch of 1,000 signatures — the repeal team had only 54 days left of the original 90 to submit more than a quarter-million valid signatures.

“It was a significant impediment,” Roberson testified.

Then, when petition circulators fanned out to do the work, they were followed by trackers bent on disrupting them, Roberson said.

“They would create disturbances. Yelling, screaming at petitioners, voters. Telling them not to sign,” Roberson said. “Productivity goes down when your petitioners are being harassed, when voters are being harassed.”

Center, former Ohio Republican Party chair, and statehouse lobbyist, Matt Borges with his attorneys outside of the federal courthouse. Photo courtesy of WEWS.

Borges, Householder’s co-defendant, is accused of paying a $15,000 bribe to a manager on Roberson’s team in exchange for inside information about the effort to gather signatures to get a repeal on the ballot.

In earlier testimony the manager, Tyler Fehrman, was said to have provided Borges with information such as how many signatures had been gathered and where petitioners were going next. Roberson said such information would give such a big advantage to opponents that “canvassers don’t even know that.”

At the same time, money was pouring through Householder’s dark-money group and into offers to hire people away from Roberson. They could either switch sides, or take $2,500 and a plane ticket to anywhere else in the continental United States.

“We lost employees at a rate we’ve never lost employees on a project,” he said.

In the end, Roberson said, his firm was unable to gather enough signatures in the abbreviated time it had. It was the company’s first failure after qualifying “hundreds” of ballot measures across the country, he said.

Dark money politics

Tuesday’s testimony followed testimony on Thursday that seemed calculated to get the jury to see Householder and his tactics in a bad light.

Beth Ellis, a member of a Clinton County farm family, described her 2018 run in the Republican Primary for state representative. A member of local boards who operates a charity for veterans with PTSD, Ellis said she was interested in running so she could advocate in Columbus for farmers and her district.

Ellis said she didn’t know Householder or that her opponent, Shane Wilkin, was a member of “Team Householder.” Then the robocalls and radio ads started, calling her a “Columbus insider,” and other things that “didn’t reflect me at all.”

One day, her son got off the school bus and found a direct-mail piece attacking her. It said it was paid for by Growth and Opportunity PAC, one of several groups funded by dark money groups that were primarily financed by FirstEnergy. But because dark money groups don’t have to disclose their donors, Ellis couldn’t unpack that.

“I didn’t know who it was from,” she said. “It was an organization I didn’t recognize. I tried to Google it and I couldn’t find anything about it.”

Ellis said she stuck to positive ads and messages about what she wanted to do if elected to the General Assembly. But it left a bad taste to have her reputation attacked in front of her neighbors by forces she couldn’t identify.

“Honestly, I want to forget about the whole thing,” she said.

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