Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.
CINCINNATI — In Washington, D.C. during Donald Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, then-Ohio Rep. Larry Householder had a dinner meeting with the top executives with Akron-based FirstEnergy. The executives stressed their likely need for a state bailout — and their need for a way to make unlimited, untraceable contributions to Householder’s bid for speaker, Householder’s top lieutenant testified Wednesday.
By late 2019, scores of millions in FirstEnergy dollars had passed through the 501(c)(4) “dark money” account that had been set up at the executives’ request. Householder had won the speaker’s gavel. And the state had passed a $1.3 bailout that mostly benefited a FirstEnergy subsidiary.
In addition, Householder had gotten more than $500,000 for personal expenses that had originated with the utility. The speaker agreed to call them “loans,” but he never quite got around to signing legal documents that were prepared — much less to paying back any of the money, the witness, Jeffrey Longstreth, testified Wednesday.
If true, it and other events described Wednesday illustrate widespread ratepayer-financed malfeasance that threatened to make Householder speaker in alliance with Ohio utilities almost indefinitely.
Four weeks into the blockbuster corruption trial, Longstreth’s testimony could prove crucial. Because he set up the dark money group and handled much of Householder’s political business, Longstreth is likely to have had one of the best views into whether the former speaker enriched himself in exchange for championing the bailout.
Showing that Householder personally enriched himself as he rammed through an unpopular corporate bailout could go a long way to convincing the jury that the former speaker participated in an illegal conspiracy.
He and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges are being tried on charges of racketeering. Federal prosecutors have said the $61 million in utility money that was used to pass the billion-dollar bailout is likely the largest bribery and money laundering scandal in Ohio history.
Longstreth, who functioned as Householder’s political strategist and general fixer, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for a favorable sentencing recommendation. On Wednesday, he explained to jurors that by the time of the dinner meeting during Trump’s inauguration, it was clear to him that Householder was well familiar with then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones and what Jones wanted for his company.
Meetings with FirstEnergy executives
In late 2016, as Householder captured a House seat that he held in the early 2000s, FirstEnergy was drowning in debt from its money-losing nuclear and coal plants. The company was laying the groundwork to send the subsidiary that owned the plants into bankruptcy, and executives calculated that state or federal subsidies would make it attractive to buyers.
In December 2016, the newly elected Householder hired Longstreth to spearhead his plan to elect enough sympathetic Republicans in 2018 that they would make Householder speaker at the start of 2019.
A month later, Householder and Longstreth were in D.C. for Trump’s inaugural — and to meet with Jones and FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling. At one steakhouse dinner, Longstreth was seated at the end of a long table with Dowling, and Jones and Householder were seated at the other.
Dowling “said they were going to get going, get your organization set up,” Longstreth testified, explaining that he understood “organization” to mean a limited liability corporation or a dark money group that could receive FirstEnergy money. “He said (the money) needed to be undisclosed and unlimited contributions.”
The next night, the dinner at another D.C. steakhouse was more intimate, with just Householder, Jones, Dowling, Longstreth and maybe one other in attendance. Jones, the FirstEnergy CEO, explained the company’s financial woes and that they were working on a federal solution to them.
“They said, ‘If not, we’re going to need something on the state level,’” Longstreth quoted Jones as saying.
He added that Householder mostly sat quietly through that part of the discussion because he “already knew everything that was being said, it seemed to me.”
Longstreth said he didn’t know about all of Householder’s previous dealings with Jones, but said the men were well enough acquainted that they attended a World Series game together in Cleveland the previous October.
The political strategist testified that it was clear to him that FirstEnergy’s enormous contributions were expressly in exchange for a bailout.
“I knew their donations were (predicated) on the expectation that something like House Bill 6 would happen,” Longstreth said.
Money for Householder
Householder didn’t just get money from FirstEnergy to advance his political ambitions, Longstreth said.
In spring of 2017, Householder called Longstreth into his office to complain of financial problems. He was head of a group of investors in an Alabama coal mine that had defaulted on a loan, he was having problems with his Perry County farm and he had a house in Florida that was badly in need of repair.
Longstreth said Householder told him that he needed to solve some of those problems or he’d be forced to drop his bid for speaker. And, he said, because Householder was his only client, that would be a big problem for Longstreth, too.
Using money out of an account that was funded by the dark money group that FirstEnergy paid into, Longstreth said he paid lawyers, settled the Alabama lawsuit and financed the repair of Householder’s Naples, Fla., home.
Longstreth had a loan agreement drawn up, but Householder never signed the papers, he said.
“We had multiple discussions, but it was a kick-the-can-down-the-road type of scenario,” Longstreth said.
In late 2019 when the issue came up, Householder “asked me in the course of our conversation, ‘Are you whole?’” Longstreth said, explaining that he interpreted the question to mean that Householder wanted to know if somebody other than Longstreth had ultimately paid Householder’s debts.
“It was one of those hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck situations,” Longstreth said, adding they both knew the arrangement the speaker was suggesting was illegal.
At another meeting at the Buckeye Lake AMVETS post, Householder requested help with credit card bills, Longstreth said. Earlier in the trial, prosecutors displayed bank records showing that the debt was about $20,000.
Longstreth said he stressed to Householder that they needed to stay on the right side of the law.
“I said it had to be something we can do legally because you can’t get something for nothing,” Longstreth said.
Testimony on widespread corruption
Wednesday’s testimony about Householder’s loans was against a backdrop of widespread corruption that threatened to become endemic.
Before Longstreth took the stand, Pat Tully testified that within weeks he moved from a senior position at the state’s utility regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, to being a senior advisor to the House Republican Caucus. In early 2019, Tully said, Householder met with him, Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, and Sam Randazzo, Gov. Mike DeWine’s nominee to chair the PUCO — and who around that time received a $4.3 million payment from FirstEnergy.
Tully described how he worked with Randazzo to help draft the utility bailout, House Bill 6, and to reconcile it with draft legislation submitted by FirstEnergy. He wasn’t asked about the propriety of a current and very recent regulator writing a law in which one of the state’s largest utilities had such an obvious interest.
In Longstreth’s testimony, he said that after HB 6 passed in 2020, he and Householder mounted an effort that could make him speaker for the foreseeable future in a kind of permanent alliance with Ohio’s big utilities.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors played recordings of Householder ally Neil Clark saying that thanks to dark money, utilities like FirstEnergy could contribute vast sums to politicians and keep their origin secret. In that way, Clark said, supposedly regulated utilities could exercise huge influence behind the scenes.
Ohio law currently limits lawmakers to eight years in either house, but they’re free to run for the other chamber after that — and can do so as long as they like. So Householder’s speakership would at least have been interrupted in 2024.
But Longstreth found that the idea of passing a law limiting lifetime service to 16 years polled well. And it had a huge silver lining for Householder — it would reset the clock so the speaker was free to stay in the House and be its leader for the next 16 years if he could keep getting the votes.
Longstreth estimated that it would cost $15 million to $20 million to buy ads selling the idea to voters. For the money, Householder and Longstreth decided to turn to utilities FirstEnergy and AEP, both of which reaped millions from the bailout. Their interest in keeping Householder in the speaker’s chair was clear, Longstreth said.
“It kind of went without saying that they would support anything that was good for the speaker because anything that was good for the speaker was good for them,” Longstreth said.
After meetings with top executives with both companies in February 2020, Householder secured pledges of support from each, Longstreth said. Then reality intervened.
“COVID started in March and then we were arrested in July,” Longstreth said.
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