Largest public corruption trial in Ohio history delayed again due to COVID-19

CINCINNATI — The largest public corruption trial in Ohio history is being put on hold for a second time Tuesday because of COVID.

U.S. District Court Judge Tim Black said court for the remainder of the week is to be determined. Black sent jurors home with at-home COVID tests on Monday night and told them to take them before returning to court. One juror tested positive.

This is the second time the trial has been delayed due to COVID. The trial was canceled for four days starting on Jan. 25 after a juror tested positive. When testimony resumed on Jan. 31, Black wore a mask and asked all jurors, attorneys and spectators to wear them.

Black dismissed one juror because he refused to wear a mask and could not produce a negative COVID test. That juror also said he had to be finished with jury service by March 3, which Black said then was questionable.

It now seems likely that the trial, which was originally scheduled to take four to six weeks, may stretch into mid-March considering the COVID delays and slow pace of testimony.

Trial testimony from Monday and last week

“You’re not trying to set me up here, are you?” former Ohio GOP chair Matt Borges asked a political operative and friend, Tyler Fehrman, who was cooperating with the FBI.

It’s one of several secret recordings from 2019 heard by jurors on Monday as prosecutors continue to mount their case in a statehouse pay-to-play trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

Prosecutors say it is the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history, involving $61 million in dark money that was funneled through a complicated scheme to buy legislators, and state law.

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

Former Ohio House speaker Larry Householder and Borges are accused of participating in a racketeering conspiracy to help Householder get elected and win control of the house, pass a $1.3 billion nuclear bailout known as House Bill 6, and defeat a ballot initiative to block it. Both have maintained their innocence.

Despite his reservations, Borges continued his relationship with Fehrman, who was working for a referendum campaign to repeal the nuclear bailout.

Borges is accused of asking Fehrman for inside information to quash the campaign, in exchange for $15,000. At the time he did not know that Fehrman was wearing a wire to secretly record their conversations for the FBI.

“I’m not asking you to sabotage their effort, I’m not asking you to be a spy,” Borges said on a 2019 recorded call. “These are things friends discuss, like ‘How is it going?’”

FBI case agent Blane Wetzel has been on the witness stand for six days, detailing how the government built its case through hundreds of bank and phone records, text messages, spreadsheets and timelines, and transcripts of secret recordings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter described it as a purposely complicated scheme so that the money couldn’t be tracked.

Quite a bit of the investigation works in reverse … you work backwards,” Wetzel testified, about how the FBI used First Energy business records, combined with public records they found online to track the money. “We had to cobble it together from several sources.”

Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. admitted its guilt, signed a deferred prosecution agreement and agreed to pay a $230 million fine in the case.

Two defendants, First Energy lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Householder adviser Jeff Longstreth, have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify at the trial.

The investigation got started after Republican lawmaker Dave Greenspan contacted the FBI because he felt pressure from Householder to approve the nuclear bailout. Wetzel met with Greenspan at a Bob Evans restaurant in May 2019. Then Greenspan called him to say Householder told him to “delete text messages,” related to the bailout, which prompted the FBI to get search warrants for phone records.

A few months later, in early September 2019, Wetzel had another meeting with a confidential source. This time it was Fehrman who called the FBI about Borges. Wetzel met with Fehrman at Graeter’s Ice Cream.

“He was upset,” Wetzel said. “Obviously meeting the FBI at Graeter’s or otherwise is challenging for folks.”

Fehrman agreed to make recorded phone calls to Borges on behalf of the FBI and sent the government text messages that Borges sent him, including some which Borges later deleted, such as “no matter what, don’t tell anyone about our conversations from earlier,” Wetzel testified.

For his work with the FBI from early September to mid-October, Wetzel testified that he paid Fehrman $1,000.

Wetzel testified that First Energy spent more than $67,000 on a private investigator to monitor the petitioners who wanted to overturn the bailout. The surveillance was so intense, that it forced the FBI to conduct counterintelligence so that Wetzel could meet with Fehrman without being tracked or followed.

That surveillance prompted the anger of Attorney General Dave Yost. Borges had tried to persuade Yost not to accept a revised petition from Ohioans Against Corporate Bailout to put the issue on the ballot and allow voters a chance to overturn the bailout.

“Dave let me have it with both barrels tonight. He is very upset by our client’s behavior,” Borges wrote in a text message to Cespedes in September 2019, over stalking, menacing, bullying behavior. “He is very jaded to our efforts right now … We should not expect him to be helping us right now.”

“Wow. Got it,” Cespedes texted back.

Borges texted Cespedes back, that Yost had warned him to “stay away from anything like that.”

This article was produced by our content partners at WCPO-9 News.

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