2023 In Review: An ex-speaker and a GOP chair convicted, while new charges come in the Ohio nuclear bailout scandal

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — 2023 had a trial that had it all – money, power, secret recordings and a man who’d been one of the most powerful people in Ohio politics just a few years ago. The move of Larry Householder from his farm to federal prison was just one moment in the case involving the $60 million bribery scheme to pass a nuclear bailout for FirstEnergy in 2019.

“This is the first opportunity I’ve had in two and a half years to talk so I can’t wait. Today’s going to be a great day.”

That was Republican former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, on his way into federal court in Cincinnati on March 1, more than a month into his trial. A little over a week later, Householder was convicted of racketeering in the $60 million scheme to pass a billion-dollar nuclear bailout for FirstEnergy.

“I was surprised by the verdict,” Householder said to reporters. When asked why he was surprised, Householder responded: “Because I’m not guilty.”

Larry Householder, former Ohio House speaker, walks into the Potter Stewart United States Court House in Cincinnati with three other people
Larry Householder, former Ohio House speaker, walks into the Potter Stewart United States Court House in Cincinnati on Jan. 23, 2023. [Andy Chow | Statehouse News Bureau]

Trial included tapes, details of how nuclear bailout got passed

The trial, occasionally delayed by COVID, captivated and surprised those who followed it. Though no audio, video or photos were allowed because it was in federal court, tapes recorded by FBI agents that were heard by the jury were released later. They featured conversations captured at fancy dinners, in secret meetings and on phone calls with Householder, with lobbyist Neil Clark, who had died by suicide in March 2021…

“The speaker calls me two weeks ago, ‘you gotta get his vote.’ I know, I said, ‘Speaker, I know. You didn’t have to call me, I know what I have to do.’”

And with former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges, accused of trying to stop an attempt to ask voters to repeal the bailout.

“If I get a call from Randy Ludlow about this, I’m going to blow your house up,” Borges said in an FBI recording.

Householder and Borges were both convicted. Householder, who’d shown no remorse during his sentencing hearing, was led away from it in handcuffs to start his 20 year sentence. Borges apologized for his actions and got five years.

The man who owned the house Borges threatened to blow up was Tyler Fehrman, who went to the FBI after Borges approached him for details on the repeal effort.

“I’ll be honest with you, the immediate feeling was just total relief,” Fehrman said. “Total relief that it’s finally wrapped up, that justice was served and that these two men are going to be held accountable for their actions.”

HB 6 case continues with new indictment

But the case isn’t over. In a plea deal in July 2021, FirstEnergy had admitted to bribing Householder and the head of the state’s utilities regulator. The former chair of the Public Utilities Commission, Sam Randazzo, was indicted in December on 11 bribery and embezzlement charges. Randazzo was appointed PUCO chair just before the bailout law passed by Gov. Mike DeWine, who says he knew Randazzo had ties to FirstEnergy.

“We couldn’t find anybody, frankly, who knew more about the whole subject. He was a hired gun. We knew that. He’d had been on both sides. He had represented some consumers as far as businesses that were big users. He’d also represented utilities. We knew, we knew all that. You know, the other stuff that came out later, we certainly did not know and if we’d known it, obviously I would not have appointed.”

No charges have ever been filed against FirstEnergy executives Chuck Jones and Mike Dowling, who have turned up in evidence presented in the case.

Repeal effort continues, but not moving much

The nuclear bailout that would have amounted to more than a billion dollars over a decade were repealed in 2021, but the rest of the law known as House Bill 6 remains intact – including subsidies of around $220 million so far to two coal-fired power plants. One is in Indiana – the other is in the district represented by House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill).

“We’ve already looked at all that repealed the things that were not good. And we went through every single line and did that.”

But Democrats and some Republicans continue to push for a repeal of a law they feel is tainted by corruption, saying if elements of House Bill 6 are good, they could pass on their own. Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) is a sponsor of a repeal effort introduced in September.

“Ohio ratepayers should not be bailing out the business decisions, and really the poor business decisions, of investor-owned utilities, particularly for a generation of resources that do not even reside in Ohio.”

That bill, backed by four Democrats and one Republican, has had a single hearing. A House bill to repeal the bailout law introduced in March, which has three Republicans among its 33 sponsors, has had no hearings.