Jurors hear final statements in the Householder bribery trial

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Federal prosecutors told jurors as former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder‘s corruption trial neared its close Tuesday that the Republican was “at the top” of a criminal conspiracy to pass nuclear bailout legislation in exchange for $60 million in bribes from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. — benefiting politically and personally from a pay-to-play scheme that, before his arrest, he had intended to carry well into the future.

Larry Householder, former Ohio House speaker, walks into the Potter Stewart U.S. Court House in Cincinnati on Jan. 23, 2023.
Larry Householder, former Ohio House speaker, walks into the Potter Stewart U.S. Court House in Cincinnati on Jan. 23, 2023. [Andy Chow | Statehouse News Bureau]
Householder, 63, leaned back quietly in U.S. District Court — in a gray suit and masked against COVID-19, hands crossed over his belly — as Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer delivered the government’s closing arguments over more than two hours.

“Larry Householder received almost $60 million from FirstEnergy bank accounts. He received that money through a 501(c)(4) that was secret, it was undisclosed, it was unreported, and he received the money knowing that FirstEnergy Corp. and FirstEnergy Solutions expected legislation in return,” Singer said. “This is called bribery.”

The government alleges Householder used a secret arrangement with FirstEnergy to secure the speakership, elect legislative allies, pass the $1 billion bailout of two aging nuclear plants run by one of its subsidiaries and then run a dirty tricks campaign to keep it from being repealed. Borges is accused of seeking to bribe an operative working for the campaign to overturn the law for inside information.

Singer countered opening statements by lawyers for co-defendant Matt Borges that he was merely an unknowing or ancillary participant in Householder’s operation, saying, “Mr. Borges entered the enterprise with his eyes wide open.”

Householder and Borges, 50, a lobbyist and former state GOP chair, are charged with conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering. Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Both pleaded not guilty and maintain their innocence.

Singer told jurors they’ve been presented during the trial’s six-week run with a “mountain of evidence” that proves the government’s case, including bank, phone and corporate records, text messages, emails, recorded conversations and witness testimony.

“The documents and evidence create a pretty clear picture,” he said. “FirstEnergy paid the money to Householder so that he could help them with legislation.”

Under an agreement between the parties, jurors were not told that FirstEnergy has signed a deal to avoid prosecution admitting to the bribes and agreeing to pay a $230 million penalty.

They did learn during testimony that two other witnesses arrested alongside Householder — Juan Cespedes and Jeff Longstreth — are cooperating with the government.

Householder attorney Steven Bradley called their claims against Householder into question. Both have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing, as has Generation Now Inc., the dark money group prosecutors allege Householder controlled on behalf of his scheme.

“The bottom line is that Larry Householder was engaged in political activity, not criminal activity,” Bradley said.

During his closing statement, Bradley sought to sow doubt in jurors’ minds about the strength of the government’s case, which he said was built on “a woefully incomplete investigation” and “government bias on display.”

As an example, Bradley pointed to a flight itinerary suggesting that FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones was not even in Washington, D.C., but in Naples, Florida, on the night of a fancy steak dinner with Householder where the government has alleged the bribery scheme was hatched over Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend in 2017.

“It didn’t happen,” he said. “That’s fantasy. That’s false. That’s not true.”

Singer told jurors it was Householder who lied on the stand when he contradicted evidence and testimony that placed him at the dinner: “Mr. Householder’s testimony was not true. So what do you draw from that? The reasonable inference is that that’s concealment.”

Committing the conspiracy crime alleged involves four elements: proving that the enterprise existed; proving that it engaged in interstate commerce, which Singer said included cellphone calls, wire transfers exceeding $10,000 and enriching FirstEnergy, which operates in multiple states; proving each defendant was associated with the enterprise; and proving that each participated in “a pattern” of racketeering activity, which must include at least two acts. Singer said the case involves “dozens and dozens” of qualifying acts.

Singer reminded jurors that the law doesn’t require the quid pro quo — the “this for that” — in a pay-to-play scheme to be written down or even stated out loud, based on the understanding that “winks and nudges” are more often how such agreements are conveyed.

“You determine all of that based on your common sense,” he told jurors, advising them to make their best inferences based on “the timing, the witnesses, the evidence.”

Borges’ attorney Karl Schneider said, “Matt Borges is no racketeer.”

Schneider characterized his client as unaware of and outside the alleged conspiracy entirely, saying Borges and Householder “didn’t even like each other.”

“What evidence is there that Matt Borges knew about an agreement between FirstEnergy and Larry Householder from January 2017?” he asked. “There’s none, zip, nada, zero evidence of that.”

The government will have an opportunity Wednesday morning to rebut the defense’s closing arguments. After that, jury deliberations will begin.