A federal jury found both former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and ex-Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges guilty of racketeering conspiracy Thursday – a dramatic outcome in the biggest public corruption case in state history.
The guilty verdict marks the end of Householder’s long political career in which he twice held the speaker’s gavel. He’ll be in the Ohio history books as the only speaker expelled from the Legislature and then convicted in a federal corruption case.
Householder and Borges, who neither showed any emotion when the verdict was read aloud, face up to 20 years in prison. After a seven-week trial, jurors deliberated just nine hours over two days.
The case made it to federal court because of its sweeping scope: $61 million in bribe money paid by FirstEnergy Corp. Via dark money groups to help Householder seize political power and in turn pass and defend a $1.3 billion bailout law known as House Bill 6.
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“This isn’t typical political activity, and they know it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Painter said during closing statements at the Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati. “Mr. Householder abused that (public) trust and Mr. Borges helped him do it.”.
After the verdict, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Parker said that the case shows that even powerful state leaders will be held accountable. “You cannot sell the public trust. It is not for sale.”.
“This is a big win for all Ohioans,” Parker said. He declined to answer questions about whether there may be more indictments.
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Borges lobbied for the House Bill 6 and worked to block a referendum to put it on the ballot in 2019. He paid a $15,000 bribe to get insider information on the referendum.
Borges, who had an ethics conviction expunged more than a decade ago, declined a chance to sign a guilty plea that could’ve given him no more than six months in prison. Borges said after the verdict that he did not regret that choice.
“I don’t believe I would have been telling the truth (by pleading),” Borges said. Householder was never given such an offer.
Prosecutors introduced nearly 900 exhibits into evidence and slogged through volumes of text messages, emails, bank records and more than demonstrated what the men knew and actions they took.
Two key players, Former FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes and Householder’s political adviser Jeff Longstreth, took plea deals and testified against them.
A fifth defendant, lobbyist Neil Clark, died by suicide in March 2021 after his arrest.
Prosecutors also played secretly recorded phone calls and meetings captured by the FBI. Clark came on their radar while investigating a separate corruption case. Later, undercover agents posing as real estate developers with an interest in sports betting hired Clark as their lobbyist. Clark led them to Householder.
Investigators tapped Clark’s phone but did not do a wiretap on Householder or Borges’ phones.
Another big break came when Tyler Fehrman called the FBI in 2019 to report that Borges offered him a bribe in exchange for insider intel on the referendum campaign. Fehrman, who considered Borges a friend and mentor, wore a wire in subsequent meetings with him.
Householder took the stand in his own defense
When Householder showed up for the first day of trial, he held a press gaggle, telling statehouse reporters that the truth would come out.
Six weeks into the trial, he got a chance to have his say when he took the stand in his own defense.
Householder, 63, said he returned to politics to try to quell divisiveness, he had no control over the dark money group Generation Now, didn’t attend key events with FirstEnergy executives and had every intention of paying back Longstreth for a “loan.”.
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The next day he endured a skilled cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter in which she dismantled many of his claims.
Borges, 50, opted against taking the stand and did not present any defense witnesses. Instead, his legal team tried to draw jurors’ attention to times when Borges’ name didn’t appear in meetings, documents or plans.
But in the end, the jury decided it wasn’t enough for reasonable doubt.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Black will sentence Householder and Borges in the coming months. Householder promised to appeal his conviction. They were not taken into custody. Black allowed both men to remain out on bond.
“This is just step one….Stay tuned,” Householder told reporters after the verdict. He said he respects the jury’s decision but doesn’t agree with it.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” Borges said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m not done fighting.”.
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Borges also plans to appeal.
The U.S. Department of Justice could arrest others whose names peppered the seven-week corruption trial. In July 2021, FirstEnergy admitted it bribed Householder and top utility regulator Sam Randazzo and agreed to pay a $230 million fine.
To date, neither Randazzo nor executives from FirstEnergy or FirstEnergy Solutions, now called Energy Harbor, have been charged with any crime.
Follow reporters Jessie Balmert and Laura Bischoff on Twitter at @lbischoff and @jbalmert.