CINCINNATI — Former House Speaker Larry Householder spent nearly four hours on the witness stand Wednesday trying to convince jurors that he was an honest, frugal “old Appalachian boy,” who loved his family and the common folk of Ohio who he referred to as Bob and Betty Buckeye.
He directly denied the detailed and damaging testimony that jurors heard for weeks from numerous current and former lawmakers, lobbyists, and political operatives, about the scheme. He said he did not threaten or pressure lawmakers to vote for the controversial nuclear bailout known as House Bill 6 or for him as House speaker, and that he did not ask them to delete related text messages.
Political contributions were routine from energy companies, including FirstEnergy Corp. and subsidiary FirstEnergy Solutions, he said, because his Perry County district was located in Appalachia. He generally supported energy policy that preserved Ohio jobs and allowed the state to create its own power.
“Did FirstEnergy political contributions in any way influence your decision making … on this legislation,” his attorney asked, about HB6, to which Householder responded, “No.”
It came as no surprise that Householder took the witness stand in his own defense, as he and his attorneys have been hinting at it for weeks.
“This is the first opportunity I’ve had in two and a half years to talk so I can’t wait. Today is going to be a great day,” he told reporters as he walked inside U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.
Prosecutors accuse ex-GOP chair Matt Borges and Householder of being part of a complex racketeering scheme to funnel $61 million in dark money from Akron-based First Energy 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.
After five weeks of trial, 18 witnesses, thousands of bank records and dozens of secret recordings, prosecutors rested their case on Monday in what they say is the largest bribery scandal in Ohio history.
“He really has no choice as a matter of strategy and a matter of the law. He had to testify,” said attorney Steve Goodin, who is a former prosecutor. “For the jurors, it’s definitely the biggest moment of the case.”
The key to this case, and most public corruption cases is intent, Goodin said. Whether or not Householder believed he was breaking the law and intended to do something illegal when he accepted hundreds of thousands from FirstEnergy that ultimately went to pay off credit card bills, legal fees and fund repairs to his Florida vacation home.
“Yes I did all of these things but I did so without any kind of criminal intent … there was no scheme, this was just politics as usual,” Goodin said, noting that appeals courts nationwide have thrown out high-profile public corruption convictions for this reason.
Goodin seemed impressed with Householder’s testimony so far.
“He’s absolutely trying to relate to the jury on a personal level and I think he’s doing a pretty good job of that,” Goodin said. “There’s a lot of folks on the jury clearly from outside of the Cincinnati area, from Appalachian areas, and he’s doing a very good job of highlighting that he’s one of them from that area.”
Householder talked about going to county fairs, his wife’s “pizza addiction,” being unsure of how long he’d been married (38 years), piling into the family van for trips, being frugal and his lifelong home on a farm in Perry County.
“We had lost 50 power plants in the state of Ohio and tens of thousands of jobs,” Householder said, describing the issues that were most important to him: clean drinking water, replacing jobs in communities hit hard by the loss of coal plants, and incentivizing a new generation of power in Ohio.
He confronted the most damaging testimony against him – saying that the late lobbyist Neil Clark wasn’t his proxy, that a FirstEnergy lobbyist did not slide a $400,000 check under his hand in 2018, and that he came up with the idea for HB6 on a whiteboard in his office.
But prosecutors have a very different version of what Householder did, and why he did it.
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter said Householder “sold the statehouse" and "ripped off" the people he was elected to serve in a backroom deal to trade power for money.
Both Householder and Borges are accused of being a part of a criminal enterprise. Racketeering conspiracy, or RICO, is a charge more often associated with organized crime bosses than elected leaders and lobbyists.
“If this looks complicated it is. Purposely so. This is a way to hide money and make it … difficult to trace,” Glatfelter said, as she outlined a complex alleged scheme to disguise bribe money.
Two defendants have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified 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.
U.S. District Court Judge Tim Black ruled that the jury could not know about Clark's death. But they have heard his wiretapped recorded conversations with undercover FBI agents.
FBI agents testified that they opened an investigation into Householderafter listening to Clark’s calls that were obtained through an FBI wiretap as part of a different investigation.
Prosecutors describe Clark as Householder's proxy or his enforcer. But Householder testified that Clark never spoke for him.
“I don’t ever give up my right to speak for myself … I speak for myself believe me,” Householder said.
But it wasn’t just Clark. Householder directly contradicted the testimony of virtually every witness the prosecution called.
When Glatfelter cross-examines him on Thursday, Goodin expects it to be lengthy.
"What I would suspect they will do is try to rebuild their case and undermine his credibility by showing the detailed nature of the scheme," Goodin said. "He’s charged with racketeering which means that there was a broad conspiracy and scheme to violate the law and to move these millions of dollars."
He predicts that Glatfelter will read scores of emails and texts involving Householder, back to him, “to underscore how intentional this must have been.”
Glatfelter was the lead prosecutor on the public corruption case against former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld which ended in a conviction in July after he testified in his own defense.
As for Borges, his attorneys say they have not decided whether or not he will testify.