Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and FirstEnergy Corp. have a lot in common. Both have long been ethically challenged. Both have long known how to use and abuse power.
Now, one is accused and one is implicated, as “Company A,” by the U.S. Justice Department in an alleged criminal scheme to force Ohio ratepayers to bail out two nuclear power plants. The plants were built and operated by FirstEnergy before a corporate shell game transferred them to a newly created company, then known as FirstEnergy Solutions.
Householder has been formally charged. FirstEnergy has not.
At long last, both are now finished as a force in state government – FirstEnergy for the foreseeable future, Householder forever.
Even if he escapes conviction on the federal criminal charges, Householder will be forever remembered as a mastermind of what federal prosecutors allege was a $60 billion scam to bail out FirstEnergy and FirstEnergy Solutions by penalizing ratepayers.
His weapon in that alleged criminal enterprise was controversial House Bill 6, a $1.3 billion gift that mainly benefited FirstEnergy and the two nuclear plants that FirstEnergy needed off its books to increase its profits and reduce its debt load.
Householder’s first four-year stint as speaker, which ended in 2004, was notable for allegations of strong-arm fundraising and hardball political tactics. Term limits forced him from office in the midst of an FBI investigation into pay-to-play and kickback allegations. No charges were ever filed.
The Householder comeback, which included rumors of a planned run for governor in 2026, ended the morning of July 21, when FBI agents arrived at his Glenford farm armed with an arrest warrant. At that very moment, Ryan Smith was preparing for a 9 a.m. meeting in his office at Rio Grande Community College, where he has served as president since being ousted as House speaker by Householder in early January 2019.
Smith lost because he dared have a conscience. His opposition to House Bill 6 made him Pubic Enemy No. 1 to FirstEnergy and its lackeys. So, in a move few saw coming, Smith lost the speaker’s job when the cagey Householder cobbled together a coalition of a minority of Republican legislators and 26 of the 38 Democrats.
Those Democrats have not been implicated in any of Householder’s alleged crimes. But they were complicit in returning to power a House speaker whose first stint in the job was riddled with accusations of ethical lapses.
Householder soon set about proving those 26 Democrats fools, stripping them of any meaningful power. And for 18 months, he has presided over a Republican caucus top-heavy with extremists whose reason for being seems to be damaging Ohio’s reputation and displaying utter disdain for science.
It’s difficult to rank these things, but this might be the worst Ohio House in history, one with Hall of Shame qualities.
If nothing else, Householder and his GOP caucus will be remembered for repeated attempts to sabotage Gov. Mike DeWine and his former health director, Dr. Amy Acton. Their grievance: DeWine and Acton tried to save lives during what is likely the greatest public health crisis in the nation’s history.
As for FirstEnergy, it matters little if the company and/or any of its officers, employees or offshoots are eventually indicted or fined for their role in this alleged fraud. It will be years, if ever, before FirstEnergy will again be allowed to bully its way around the Statehouse by showering legislators and candidates for statewide office with campaign contributions. Many legislators will now hide under their desks when a FirstEnergy lobbyist comes calling, fearing FBI agents carrying a subpoena or warrant might soon follow.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co., now part of FirstEnergy, aggressively attempted to undermine the electricity rate competition posed by Cleveland Public Power (then known as Muny Light).
And since the end of World War II, that same power company has most always had its way with statewide officeholders, legislators, and especially, members of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
When it comes to energy in Ohio, there’s always a whiff of wrongdoing in the air. And the smell can almost always be traced to the vicinity of Broad and High streets in Columbus, where various state officials have for decades cared more about serving electricity and coal interests than the citizens of Ohio.
Mary Anne Sharkey was The Plain Dealer’s Columbus bureau chief for almost the entire 1980s. She told me in a recent conversation that, “FirstEnergy has been driving Ohio’s backward energy policy for decades through an army of lobbyists, law firms, legislators, political operatives and political parties.”
Announcing the Householder arrest and criminal charges during a July 21 news conference, David DeVillers, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, labeled it “likely the largest bribery, money-laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”
Indeed, the 82-page federal complaint and affidavit is breathtaking in the scope of criminal behavior it alleges. But it doesn’t yet measure up to state officials spending the first 17 years of this century pouring $1 billion down a rat hole known as the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, widely considered at the time perhaps the nation’s worst charter school.
The ECOT scorecard: The school got shut down. But no one went to prison and no one was indicted.
ECOT was the biggest rip-off in Ohio history. Worthy of note is that longtime Columbus lobbyist Neil Clark, among those just arrested on racketeering charges in connection with his role on behalf of House Bill 6, was also ECOT’s most prominent mouthpiece and strategist.
So, what’s next in all this?
• Almost certainly more indictments.
• Momentum to repeal House Bill 6. If the legislature doesn’t act, expect a ballot issue next year.
•Democrats and the Joe Biden campaign will remind voters that Householder, accused of being a crook by President Donald Trump’s Justice Department, has been the president’s most outspoken Ohio supporter.
• And, depending on how long this scandal plays out and how it’s resolved, the potential of really big trouble for Ohio Republicans in the 2022 elections. That’s exactly why Gov. Mike DeWine, Sen. Rob Portman and others were quick to call for Householder’s resignation.
Nothing good can come of this for Republicans. Plenty of good might come of it for taxpayers and ratepayers.
Brent Larkin was the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.