CINCINNATI — Jurors began deliberating on Wednesday in a nationally-watched public corruption trial involving one of the most powerful politicians in Ohio before his arrest.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter had the last word in her rebuttal closing argument, urging jurors to convict because former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and ex-GOP chair turned lobbyist Matt Borges had violated the public's trust and hidden their behavior through a purposely complex scheme.
“Mr. Householder abused that trust and Mr. Borges helped him do it," Painter said. "There was a reason for all of this concealment - because what they were doing was wrong. This wasn’t typical political activity and they knew it.”
Then U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black told jurors to take as much time as they need and sent them off to deliberate. He wished attorneys "Godspeed," before stepping off the bench just after 10:45 a.m.
Jurors heard sprawling and sometimes repetitive closing arguments for more than six hours on Tuesday, as attorneys tried to summarize six weeks of testimony by more than 25 witnesses and involving hundreds of documents.
In this same courtroom, the same three-person prosecutorial team won a conviction against former city councilman PG Sittenfeld for bribery eight months ago for taking $40,000 in campaign donations in exchange for support of a development deal.
But experts say the two cases are vastly different.
“This is big league corruption,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven about the current statehouse case. “The City Hall corruption was consequential, but it was a few people and a relatively small pile of money.”
Whatever jurors decide in their verdict, the ramifications may be felt from the Columbus statehouse to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The speakership in Ohio is a very powerful office, it has a rather comprehensive ability to schedule bills, to stop bills, to move pieces around the chessboard,” Niven said. “I think there’s been a sense that speakers could operate without limit, without any kind of parameters around them. This case is ultimately a test of that.”
Prosecutors accuse Borges and Householder of being part of a complex scheme to funnel nearly $61 million in dark money from Akron-based First Energy Corp. and its subsidiary to elect Householder as speaker, solidify his power base, secure enough votes to pass a ratepayer-funded bailout of two nuclear plants and ensure it survived a ballot campaign to overturn it.
Racketeering conspiracy, or RICO, is a charge more often associated with organized crime bosses than elected leaders and lobbyists.
“This is the first time in the country that any of us can tell that these racketeering charges have been used in the political setting,” said former prosecutor Steve Goodin, who said RICO is most often charged against major drug operations, gang members and enterprises involving human trafficking and prostitution.
After listening to portions of the government’s closing argument, Goodin said that Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer appeared to be tailoring his words to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, assuming there would be a conviction and that the case’s future would ultimately be decided by a higher court.
“Closing arguments tend to confirm what the jury has already decided,” Goodin said, referring to his own past cases. “Most jurors … usually reach their conclusions during the testimony … particularly after Mr. Householder was cross-examined, I think most of the jurors had probably made up their minds.”
Householder endured a particularly scathing cross-examination last week, by Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter, in which he frequently responded to her questions with, “I don’t have an answer for you,” or “I don’t know.”
“I think the general question of his culpability was decided for most of them at that point in time,” Goodin said.
Singer outright accused Householder of lying during his testimony because he denied having dinners with FirstEnergy executives in Washington D.C. during the January 2017 presidential inauguration. Householder’s top aide, Jeff Longstreth testified that the bailout scheme was initially hatched around those steakhouse restaurant tables.
“Mr. Householder’s testimony was not true,” Singer said. “What does concealment show? That there was something to hide … and why would he hide it? Because it's evidence of his corruption.FirstEnergy representatives signed a deferred prosecution agreement with prosecutors in July 2021 and agreed to pay a $230 million fine. The public utility holding company admitted it conspired with public officials and others to pay tens of millions in exchange for bailout legislation.
Two defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified at trial: lobbyist Juan Cespedes and political advisor Longstreth. A third, Columbus lobbyist Neil Clark, took his own life a year after his arrest. Clark died from a gunshot wound to the head in March 2021, while wearing a blue “DeWine for Governor” t-shirt.
Black ruled that the jury could not know about Clark's death, which made it awkward at times during testimony when witnesses referred to him in the past tense. But they have heard his wiretapped recorded conversations with undercover FBI agents.
Householder attorney Steven Bradley spent two hours trying to convince jurors that his client was an honest politician who had the interests of everyday Ohioans, known as Bob and Betty Buckeye, at heart when he created controversial House Bill 6 and pushed for its passage and preservation.
“Larry supported legislation that was beneficial to these power plants because he believed that it was good policy … not because he was bribed, because it was good for Ohioans,” Bradley said. “It was consistent with his long-held political views regarding the importance of energy generation in Ohio.”
He accused the government of being biased, conducting an incomplete investigation, ignoring evidence that was inconsistent with their theory of the case, and portraying Householder as a mob boss who wanted “casket carriers.”
But Painter said FBI case agent Blane Wetzel conducted a massive, sprawling investigation with more than 100 interviews, 250 grand jury subpoenas and tens of millions of pages of documents.
"The evidence that’s been presented in this case is overwhelming," Painter said.
Wetzel testified that he used GPS data to confirm that a photo taken of Householder, his son Luke and a FirstEnergy official in the back of a limousine was taken directly outside of a steakhouse where Householder testified that he never ate on that January 18, 2017 night.
But even if jurors believe Householder about this dinner, and the details of another meeting between him and FirstEnergy officials and lobbyists that was in dispute at trial, Painter said "this case doesn’t turn on those two meetings.”
“Larry Householder accepted over $60 million over a three-year period, receiving wires every three months,” Singer said, stating he used more than $500,000 of FirstEnergy money to pay off credit card debt, a lawsuit settlement and to fix up his Florida home.
“All that was pretty bad,” said Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin, about FirstEnergy money that was diverted to pay Householder’s personal bills. Householder testified that it was a loan that he was planning to pay back.
“The way that they linked the timelines of certain payments very closely to certain conversations, so that there would be conversations between Speaker Householder or one of his proxies and somebody from FirstEnergy where payment is discussed, and then a payment would follow the same day or the next day,” Katkin said. “I think that was pretty damning as well.”
The future of federal public corruption cases could be at stake with this verdict, Katkin said, and a conviction could mean that these crimes continue to be a top priority.
An acquittal could mean the opposite.
“If they get acquitted in this case and you combine that with a recent line of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have been really skeptical … I think that would probably chill the Justice Department from continuing to bring these kinds of cases,” Katkin said.
But an acquittal for Borges, who even prosecutors admit was never a central figure in this alleged conspiracy, would not be as damaging, Katkin said.
“He (Householder) is the target I think,” said Katkin. “I don’t think the Justice Department would be very impacted by what happens to Borges, if they get a Householder conviction.”
The most damaging testimony against Borges came from his former friend Tyler Fehrman, who went to the FBI after he said Borges tried to bribe him for information about the ballot campaign to overturn HB 6, where he worked. Fehrman wore a wire for the FBI and many of those conversations were played at trial, including one in which Borges described Householder's relationship with FirstEnergy as an "unholy alliance."
While Borges wasn't part of the alleged criminal enterprise when it began in 2016, he allegedly joined later on to help defeat the ballot referendum and preserve the nuclear bailout, and get paid through FirstEnergy money, Painter said.
"They’re all pigs at the trough, there’s no reason for them not to get there's," Painter said about Borges.
But Borges' attorney, Karl Schneider, said his client was never part of "Team Householder," that the two men were never friends, and he was never part of a conspiracy.