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Householder attorney suggests Judge Black has 'personal animosity' in historic public corruption trial

Attorney questions if judge should preside over biggest corruption trial in Ohio history, accusing him of bias.
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder enters U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Jan. 23, 2023.
Posted at 5:07 PM, Jan 31, 2023

CINCINNATI — An attorney for former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder accused a federal judge of being biased, asked if he had “personal animosity,” toward his client, and questioned if he should recuse himself from the largest public corruption case in state history.

Attorney Mark Marein raised these issues on Tuesday morning, once the trial resumed after a six-day recess due to a juror testing positive for COVID.

Marein said the legal team had been “racking their brains” to come up with a reason why it seems as if U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black has “personal animosity,” toward Householder. He questioned if Black was biased against them because Householder donated money to a 501(c)4 nonprofit that opposed Black’s two runs for the Ohio Supreme Court in 2000 and 2002.

“The answer to your question is no,” Black responded simply.

Prosecutor Emily Glatfelter gives her opening statement on Jan. 23, 2023 in Larry Householder trial.
Prosecutor Emily Glatfelter gives her opening statement on Jan. 23, 2023 in Larry Householder trial.

So far, the drama between the judge and attorneys has overshadowed the somewhat dry, procedural testimony.

During opening statements last week, Black gave a scathing rebuke to Householder's defense team for whispering, pen clicking and making faces during a prosecutor's opening statement. Black called the behavior “bush league,” and threatened to make them sit in the gallery if it didn’t stop.

Householder and former GOP chair Matt Borges are accused of racketeering conspiracy for taking $60 million from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and funneling the dark money through a nonprofit, Generation Now, to build a power base for Householder and pass a $1.3 billion bailout for two nuclear plants in what is known as Ohio House Bill 6.

On Tuesday, before FBI case agent Blane Wetzel could resume his testimony, Marein complained about why the judge dismissed a juror.

A grand jury indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates for public corruption in 2020.
A grand jury indicted former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates for public corruption in 2020.

The judge said he dismissed a juror who refused to wear a mask in the jury box, could not produce a negative COVID test, and said he had to be finished with jury duty by March 3. Black ordered all jurors and attorneys to wear masks in the courtroom this week, and all jurors to produce negative COVID tests before the trial could resume on Tuesday.

“There were less restrictive options we could have discussed,” Marein said, arguing that his legal team wasn’t aware that Black would dismiss the juror until he had already done so.

Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin was in the courtroom, and said the controversies were unusual.

“I think Householder’s attorney said that he didn’t even receive proper notice that that would happen so they didn’t have a chance to make their arguments about why that shouldn’t happen … and Judge Black said that they were factually wrong about that,” Katkin said. “I think Householder’s lawyers are presuming that a juror like that would have been more sympathetic to a Republican politician like Householder.”

Katkin said Householder’s attorney raised these issues so he could use them as a basis for a possible appeal to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. But Katkin didn’t think the juror issue, or questioning the judge’s fairness, would be looked on favorably by an appeals court.

“Because judges are afforded a presumption of integrity, and it’s a fairly strong presumption, the only way that Householder’s lawyers could ever make an issue of this on appeal is if they can demonstrate that throughout the conduct of the trial Judge Black is making consistently wrong rulings in ways that disfavor Householder,” Katkin said. “I just don’t see any evidence of that so far.”

After the morning controversy, the remainder of Tuesday was taken up with Wetzel’s testimony who detailed phone and bank records, pay logs and donations, calendar entries, polls and fundraising data, that prosecutors are using as the foundation for the alleged conspiracy.

Experts say the public corruption trial of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder will put the entire statehouse on display.
Experts say the public corruption trial of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder will put the entire statehouse on display.

The people who took part in this criminal enterprise called themselves, “Team Householder,” “House Bill 6 Team,” and “People on the Farm,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter, who noted in her opening statement that Householder wanted to find “casket carriers,” or people who were loyal to him above all else — even their own constituents as elected leaders.

Two defendants have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and agreed to testify at trial: lobbyist Juan Cespedes and political advisor Jeffrey 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, according to his Florida autopsy report which was reported by numerous media outlets.

FBI never had wiretaps on the phones of Householder or Borges, Wetzel said, but agents were eavesdropping on Clark’s calls as part of a different investigation.

This is a similar scenario to former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s case. A jury convicted Sittenfeld of public corruption in July, after FBI agents admitted they began probing City Hall as part of a different investigation.

Prosecutor Emily Glatfelter asks questions of FBI case agent Blane Wetzel on Jan. 24, 2023.
Prosecutor Emily Glatfelter asks questions of FBI case agent Blane Wetzel on Jan. 24, 2023.

“It does seem to be for this public corruption unit of the Ohio FBI based on some other cases that they’ve brought, that they start with one investigation, and it mushrooms out,” Katkin said. “I think we are seeing a lot of that now.”

In the Sittenfeld case, the same prosecutors relied heavily on recorded phone calls and videos of Sittenfeld talking to undercover agents and cooperating witnesses. They used Sittenfeld’s own words, to prompt jurors to convict him.

In this case, jurors heard their first recorded phone call on Tuesday. It was between Clark and Householder on December 11, 2017, in which the two talked about the upcoming 2018 statehouse elections and the past redistricting of Ohio’s 12th congressional district which contains part of Columbus.

Wetzel will continue his direct testimony on Wednesday, followed by cross-examination by the two defense teams.

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