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Former Ohio Speaker Householder files appeal, says bribe payment was within First Amendment rights

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Former Ohio Speaker Householder files appeal, says bribe payment was within First Amendment rights

Feb 28, 2024 | 4:55 am ET
By Morgan Trau
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Former Ohio Speaker Householder files appeal, says bribe payment was within First Amendment rights
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Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder gives the thumbs up as he enters a federal courthouse in Cincinnati. (Photo from WEWS.)

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder has filed an appeal against his guilty conviction and 20-year sentence by alleging the bribe he accepted, which he still claims wasn’t a bribe, was within his First Amendment rights. He continues to languish in federal prison due to his involvement in the largest bribery scheme in state history.

In the 105-page document filed Monday evening in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Householder’s attorneys said the man prosecutors likened to a “mob boss” in the House Bill 6 scheme was “scapegoated” by the federal government.

Back in 2019, Householder took a $61 million bribe in exchange for legislation to give FirstEnergy a $1 billion bailout, named H.B. 6, at the expense of utility ratepayers.

In March 2023, a jury found Householder and former GOP leader Matt Borges guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for their respective roles in the scheme.

In late June that year, federal judge Timothy Black sentenced Householder to 20 years in prison. Borges got five years. The two surviving defendants — Jeff Longstreth and Juan Cespedes — took plea agreements early on, helping the FBI, and are still awaiting their sentencing. The feds are asking for zero to six months for them.

At the end of 2023, former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Sam Randazzo pleaded not guilty after being charged federally with a dozen crimes related to bribery and embezzlement after he allegedly received more than $4.3 million from FirstEnergy. The utility company has already admitted it bribed everyone.

This past month, former FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones, former FirstEnergy Senior Vice President Michael Dowling, and Randazzo were all hit with state-level charges. Each pleaded not guilty during their joint arraignment in Akron in mid-February. They are accused of masterminding the corruption scheme.

Householder in the Big House

Householder’s appeal arguments could be broken up into four sections: First Amendment, jury, sentencing, and bias.

But first — his team argued that it isn’t fair that FirstEnergy executives weren’t charged by the feds for “allegedly” bribing Householder. The defense also argued that FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel didn’t know as much as he seemed, because he had “no personal knowledge” and only knew the case by “simply reading text messages.” It should be noted that Wetzel was the lead agent on the case and had wiretaps, documentation between dozens of individuals associated with H.B. 6, and had set up sting operations with informants to catch people in the act of bribery. He also was present when Householder asked a whistleblower to delete information from his phone.

“The federal government was not content to charge the then-Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, Appellant Larry Householder, with ordinary honest-services bribery charges,” the defense states in the appeal. “Instead, it charged him with leading a racketeering enterprise and tried him as a scapegoat for what it viewed to be a corrupt piece of legislation supported by undisclosed campaign contributions that were permitted by federal law.”

Along with the 105-page document was a 207-page appendix with exhibits. This included hand-written notes about individuals he went to dinner with, FirstEnergy slideshows, and receipts.

First Amendment

The attorneys argue that the feds “overstepped the limits of their authority,” as well. The document states that the U.S. Supreme Court has “admonished federal prosecutors that they are not the arbiters of good government for state officials,” seemingly insinuating that Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter was trying to make an example out of Householder.

“The district court permitted the government to convict Householder and his co-defendant by simply relying on undisclosed campaign contributions permitted by federal law and protected by the First Amendment,” the defense wrote.

To not be too technical, this argument hinges on the controversial case Citizens United v. FEC, in which the court decided that corporations are people when it comes to campaign finance and that money is speech.

“Under federal law and under the First Amendment, corporations can contribute unlimited monies to those organizations, which are not required to disclose publicly the identity of the contributors,” the defense said.

In essence, the attorneys want the court of appeals to consider whether the government can convict a defendant based on undisclosed campaign contributions protected by the First Amendment.

This argument typically has validity, Case Western Reserve University criminal law professor Mike Benza said.

“People give money to politicians with the idea of supporting that person because they agree with what that person stands for or agrees with the position of this person,” Benza said. “Those are all legitimate protected activities.”

This is the strongest of Householder’s multiple arguments, he added.

Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), an attorney, said using “politics as usual” as an argument is completely meritless.

“I think if that were true, then there’d be a lot more people being prosecuted in federal and state court,” Huffman said, in response to a question about validity from Statehouse reporter Morgan Trau.

When Huffman was Speaker Pro Tem in the House, he was also in charge of the campaign fund — and took that opportunity to conduct “educational opportunities” for members to learn what was ethical and what wasn’t, the president added.

“The phrase ‘quid pro quo,’ Latin for ‘this for that’ really needs to be the center of anybody’s analysis,” he added. “We understand people are going to give campaign contributions but if there’s some connection, even if you don’t mean it in your mind, that some objective person could say there is — there’s trouble.”

Householder’s case “obviously” went far beyond that, he said.

“What is the problem and what the government proved in the trial was that this was beyond the exercise of free speech,” Benza agreed. “It was being exercised as a bribe to get him to do something in exchange for the money.”

The argument of everyday politics is also difficult to use for Householder because the “campaign contributions” were being used for renovations to his Florida home and paying off credit card debt, Benza said.

“With all of the evidence and all of the investigation and however long jury trial it is — it’s beyond the pale to say, ‘well, it’s politics as usual,'” Huffman continued. “That’s utterly ridiculous.”

Jury

Householder’s defense also argued a multitude of problems it had surrounding the jury.

The defense did not appreciate that a juror was dismissed after he refused to wear a mask when COVID-19 outbreaks were delaying the court. This violated Householder’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the appeal said, because the defense was excluded from that decision-making process.

“This violation is structural error and requires a new trial,” the appeal states.

The judge also didn’t tell the jury the instructions “accurately,” it claims, saying the judge didn’t make it clear that bribery is an agreement. These types of claims “demand proof of an unambiguous quid pro quo,” which was not shown by the feds, according to the defense. The prosecution, in their opening and closing testimony, brought up seven different instances of direct quid pro quo.

The defense was also mad that the jury heard Householder’s “highly inflammatory recordings,” and testimony from the co-conspirators who pleaded guilty.

The prosecution asked if there were any consequences for people who didn’t support Householder, but rather his opponent for speaker, incumbent Ryan Smith. Householder said no.

Immediately following his denial, an audio recording was played where Householder said, “We can f— them over later” about Smith’s supporters.

What got the jury worked up was when a recording played of Householder suggesting to threaten state Reps. Dave Greenspan and Scott Lipps, who didn’t support him, saying: “If you’re going to f— with me, I’m going to f— with your kids.”

“The government invited the jury to convict based on improper considerations — that Householder was a vindictive ‘bully with a lust for power’ (to use the district court’s words from the sentencing hearing),” the document states.

The audio clips caused “unfair prejudice,” the attorneys said.

“Householder’s vindictiveness toward his political rivals did not help the government prove any elements of the crime charged,” the defense added.

To Benza, the tapes were very important.

“The government showed why those tapes were relevant because he was directly giving money to people to get them to come to his side and he was using his stick to put down those people as a threat to them in order to get what FirstEnergy wanted,” the professor said.

Not only that, but it didn’t matter if they were inflammatory because “they were valid for the credibility of Householder,” he said.

“You made the statement, ‘I didn’t bully anybody,'” he continued, “Then the government plays showing you bullying people; the jury can consider that when deciding whether to believe you about your other statements.”

Householder also thought it was unfair that the jurors got to hear from his coconspirators who flipped on him.

Benza laughed at this.

“Welcome to the criminal justice system,” he said. “This is how we build cases.”

The professor then gave his three cheeky tips he gives to his criminal law students:

  1. Don’t do the crime.
  2. If you’re gonna break Rule 1, don’t have an accomplice, because if you have an accomplice, that accomplice is gonna get caught and rat you out.
  3. If you’re gonna break Rule 1 and 2, leave the accomplice’s body at the scene.

Sentencing

Householder being sentenced to 20 years wasn’t reasonable and the judge miscalculated the sentencing guidelines, his attorneys said.

This is also a valid argument, Benza said, but not realistically going to change anything.

“[The judge in the court of appeals] simply reviews it to see if it was an acceptable sentence, not whether it was the sentence they would have imposed if they were the trial court,” he said.

Householder’s attorneys also argued that defendants in the “vast majority of public corruption cases received less than a 10-year sentence,” and Householder got significantly more than his codefendants.

“The district court’s maximum sentence was substantively unreasonable,” since he has no risk of re-offending because his conviction bars him from running for public office again, the appeal says.

It also wasn’t fair that the court found Householder to have committed perjury, the attorneys said. They believe he told the truth, despite his lying in court.

Bias?

The attorneys also brought up allegations of judicial bias.

U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black, a Democrat nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2009, has been in the legal profession for more than four decades. He got his first spot on the bench in 1994, joining the Hamilton County Municipal Court. During his ten-year tenure on the trial court, he decided to run for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court in 2000.

This campaign was brought up 22 or so years later by Householder’s attorney Mark Marein. Before the jury entered the courtroom on Tuesday, the Cleveland-based lawyer argued that the judge didn’t like them.

“We all collectively believe that the court holds animosity toward us,” Marein said. “I question whether [Judge Black] should be presiding over this.”

The claim of bias hinges on an alleged longstanding grudge Black has against Householder. When Black ran against a Republican candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court, Householder allegedly fought against his candidacy and donated to a nonprofit that opposed his run, according to the defense attorney.

“There is certainly no evidence that bias played into this case,” Benza said.

Legal experts WEWS/OCJ spoke to don’t believe Householder’s specific opposition to Black made a dent, and he was expected to lose the race.

What’s next?

The U.S. Attorney’s Office will issue its response against the appeal. Their position is clear from the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum in the case: “He acted as the quintessential mob boss, directing the criminal enterprise from the shadows and using his casket carriers to execute the scheme.”

Is there a shot that Householder could overturn his conviction? Well…

“Realistically, Judge Black did a really good job in running this trial and the government did a really good job of building their case,” Benza said. “It’s going to be very difficult to convince the court of appeals that anything that is an error rises to the level of reversible error.”

Where should Householder focus?

“The issue of the political speech versus bribery — that’s their best issue,” the professor responded. “These other issues, realistically, are not going to carry the day.”

In the midst of all of this, FirstEnergy customers are still angry and demanding their money back — since they are still paying for the corrupt bill’s coal subsidies.

This article was originally published on News5Cleveland.com and is published in the Ohio Capital Journal under a content-sharing agreement. Unlike other OCJ articles, it is not available for free republication by other news outlets as it is owned by WEWS in Cleveland.

Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.