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Bribery trial of ex-Ohio House speaker to begin in earnest

CINCINNATI (AP) — Opening statements are scheduled Monday in former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder ’s bribery trial in what federal prosecutors believe is the largest corruption case in state history.

Lobbyist Matt Borges, a former chair of the Ohio Republican Party, also is being tried.

A jury selected in Cincinnati must now decide whether Householder, 63, and Borges, 50, are guilty of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering. They pleaded not guilty and maintain their innocence.

Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. The trial could last six weeks.

An indictment alleged Householder, Borges, three other people and a dark money group called Generation Now orchestrated an elaborate scheme, secretly funded by FirstEnergy, to secure Householder’s power, elect his allies, pass legislation containing a $1 billion bailout for two aging nuclear power plants, and then vex a ballot effort to overturn the bill with a dirty tricks campaign. The arrests happened in July 2020.

Under a deal to avoid prosecution, Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. admitted to using dark money groups to fund the scheme and to bribing the state’s top utility regulator. Then-Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chair Sam Randazzo resigned after an FBI search of his home. He has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.

Two Householder associates and a related nonprofit have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme described by prosecutors and await sentencing. A third defendant who pleaded not guilty died by suicide.

Campaign finance experts view the case as an opportunity for the federal government to clarify the line between legal and illegal handling of the untraceable “dark” money that has flooded politics in recent years — some $1 billion since the landmark Citizens United v. FEC decision of 2010, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan campaign finance research organization.

Householder’s attorneys have sought to argue that the scheme described by prosecutors was nothing more than business as usual, a strategy for advancing his leadership aspirations that has been employed routinely by politicians of both parties.

Prosecutors plan to use recorded phone calls, text messages, emails, witness testimony and documentary evidence to prove that Householder entered into what one co-conspirator described as an “unholy alliance” with FirstEnergy that amounted to an illegal racketeering scheme, and that Borges played a key role in carrying it out.

The legislation at the heart of the scandal — the Ohio Clean Air Program bill — included a $1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants, Davis-Besse and Perry, operated at the time by a wholly owned FirstEnergy subsidiary. Surcharges slated to be tacked onto electricity bills statewide to pay for the bailout were eliminated in a partial repeal of the legislation in 2021 and never charged.

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