Local experts: Ohio corruption case further tarnishes trust in politics, government

Experts say the alleged $60 million racketeering conspiracy involving Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and GOP insiders tarnishes the trust in the political process and increases cynicism of government.

The allegations will for many people “affirm that the system ‘is rigged’ and that change is not possible,” said Cedarville University political science professor Mark C. Smith.

But distrust of the political system and of government may not be the only byproduct. Political collateral damage for lawmakers not connected to the plot could also happen, he said.

“Lawmakers who are not affected could suffer declines in enthusiasm, fundraising, and the number of volunteers willing to work for them,” said Smith.

The prevailing thought is the political misconduct would impact Republicans more than Democrats — all indicted are Republicans — and “it would need to spread to more parts of the party, especially to other current officeholders, for it to do maximum political damage,” he said.

ExploreHow prosecutors say the Ohio House Speaker built a political machine on a ‘corrupt bargain’

Federal investigators announced on Tuesday that Householder, 61, of Glenford, and four co-conspirators, worked in concert to violate the federal racketeering statute by accepting millions of dollars in bribes and money laundering. From March 2017 to March 2020, investigators said, Householder and his co-conspirators received millions of dollars from FirstEnergy Solutions in exchange for passing House Bill 6. The bill was a bailout of two failing Ohio nuclear power plants owned by FirstEnergy.

This was set up by, according to the federal complaint, Householder’s efforts to garner support for his return to the House speakership by backing candidates in contested GOP primaries in the May 2018 election.

Miami University political science professor John Forren said the scope of the corruption allegations “goes far beyond just self-enrichment and self-dealing,” and agrees the charges are “almost certain to erode Ohioans’ already flagging confidence.”

“In a democracy like ours, citizens invest an enormous amount of trust in the people that they elect to office,” he said. “Indeed, when voters elect someone to the state legislature, they are saying in essence: we are investing you with a great deal of power to make decisions that affect our lives in profound ways.”

If the Householder allegations are proven true, Forren said, “Ohio has just suffered a breathtaking breach of that public trust” that will just feed into the “already disturbing decline in public confidence in government."

ExploreDeWine still supports energy legislation at center of corruption case

University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven said he believes most members probably don’t want to see the campaign system upended because “they would have to work harder if the campaign playing field was level."

“They will solemnly shake their heads and say, ‘Tisk-tisk,' and then hope this all blows over and they can go back to business as usual,” he said.

Speaker of the Ohio House Larry Householder is accused in a $60 million federal bribery probe. FILE
Speaker of the Ohio House Larry Householder is accused in a $60 million federal bribery probe. FILE

Niven said change will only happen when individual legislators first commit to transparency, such as publicly posting their calendar online to “let their constituents know exactly who gets their attention and who they are working for.”

“The real threat to the status quo would be a ballot campaign that gave voters the chance to impose a new campaign finance system on the legislature,” Niven said. “The legislature has dragged its feet on even the baby steps toward transparency. It was only this year that legislative committee sessions have been made available online.”

The arrested and charged include:

  • Larry Householder, 61, of Glenford, the Ohio House Speaker
  • Mathew Borges, 48, of Bexley, a lobbyist who previously served as chair of the Ohio Republican Party;
  • Jeffrey Longstreth, 44, of Columbus, Householder’s longtime campaign and political strategist;
  • Neil Clark, 67, of Columbus, a lobbyist who owns and operates Grant Street Consultants and previously served as budget director for the Ohio Republican Caucus; and
  • Juan Cespedes, 40, of Columbus, a multi-client lobbyist.

Generation Now, a corporate entity formed by Longstreth registered as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, was also charged.