Powerful Ohio lawmaker arrested for role in 'largest bribery scheme' in state history, officials said

FBI agents raided the farm of House Speaker Larry Householder in connection to his support of nuclear power plant bailouts.
Ohio State Representative Larry Householder (R), of District 72, stands at the head of a legislative session as Speaker of the House in Columbus on Oct. 30, 2019.
Ohio State Representative Larry Householder (R), of District 72, stands at the head of a legislative session as Speaker of the House in Columbus on Oct. 30, 2019.John Minchillo / AP

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By David K. Li

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four cohorts were arrested on Tuesday in what prosecutors called the “largest bribery scheme" in state history.

FBI agents raided Householder’s farm in Glenford, about 45 miles east of Columbus, according to Perry County Sheriff’s deputies who assisted in the operation on Tuesday morning.

The 61-year-old Householder, regarded as one of the state's three most powerful lawmakers, was taken into custody and charged with racketeering conspiracy, officials said.

Also arrested and charged were the speaker's adviser Jeffrey Longstreth, 44, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matthew Borges, 48, and prominent lobbyists Neil Clark, 67, and Juan Cespedes, 40, authorities said.

The defendants are behind "what is likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio," U.S. Attorney David DeVillers told reporters.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called on his fellow Republican Householder to step down and labeled Tuesday "a sad day for Ohio."

"Because of the nature of these charges, it will be impossible for Speaker Householder to effectively lead the Ohio House of Representatives," DeWine said in a statement, "therefore, I am calling on Speaker Householder to resign immediately."

The charges are connected to House Bill 6, officials said, a bill signed into law last year that bailed out two nuclear power plants in northern Ohio to the tune of $1.5 billion.

The lawmaker played a key role in passing the financial rescue, which included new fees on electricity bills in Ohio and will direct more than $150 million annually, through 2026, to the plants near Cleveland and Toledo.

Throughout the day, there was no answer at Householder’s Columbus office and its voicemail box was full.

A representative for the Ohio GOP did not immediately return email and phone messages seeking comment on Tuesday.

The center of the scheme, officials said, was the formation a tax-free non-profit called Generation Now that was supposed to be a social service organization. Instead, it was allegedly Householder's personal account, funded by an energy company, to wield political power and pass the bailout, authorities said.

Generation Now was allegedly used to funnel $61 million in "dark money," DeVillers said.

"Make no mistake, these allegations are bribery, pure and simple," DeVillers said. "This was a quid pro quo. This was pay to play."

As a tax-exempt social welfare organization, deposits could be made into Generation Now with no required disclosure, authorities said.

Payments into the fund were made between March 2017 and May 2020, FBI Special Agent Blane Wetzel wrote in the criminal complaint.

"The millions paid into this entity are akin bags of cash," Wetzel wrote.

The Republican Householder is now on his second stint as House speaker, having held that position from 2001 to 2004. He served in the House from 1997 through 2004 and left due to term limits.

He won election back to the chamber in 2016 and assumed the speakership again last year.

DeVillers took preemptive aim at any critics who might accuse him of any political motive, because this probe is targeting top GOP figures.

"I'm a Trump appointee and these are a bunch of Republicans," he said. "I don't care what party they're in, I don't care who they work for, this is what this office does."

The defendants made an initial appearance in court on Tuesday but were not required to enter a plea. A judge ordered Householder released on his own recognizance.

The Ohio lawmaker's arrest comes one day after a former New York politician of similar stature, one-time Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for a bribery scheme.

Associated Press contributed.