After Ohio House Speaker Rep. Larry Householder was arrested last week in connection with an alleged $60 million bribery scheme related to a nuclear bailout bill, local state legislators are re-evaluating House Bill 6 and their personal campaign contributions from FirstEnergy.
FBI agents arrested Rep. Householder, R-Glenford, at his farm outside of Columbus on July 21. Four others also were arrested in the scheme including former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges, Rep. Householder adviser Jeffrey Longstreth and lobbyists Neil Clark and Juan Cespedes. They were each charged with “conspiracy to participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of an enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity,” according to the United States District Court criminal complaint.
“This is a dark time for democracy,” state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, said on Monday. “Ohioans deserve better.”
Gov. Mike DeWine has called for Rep. Householder to resign, but as of early this week, the speaker said he does not plan to give up his position.
The House was scheduled to vote today on whether to remove Rep. Householder as speaker. Regardless of the outcome of that vote, he will retain his legislative seat.
According to the federal complaint, there was a bribery campaign for several years to support Rep. Householder’s bid to become speaker and to pass HB 6, which bailed out two nuclear power plants and cut subsidies for renewable energy. The complaint also charges Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) controlled by Rep. Householder, according to the complaint.
There is a move to repeal the bill, but state Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chester, who supported HB 6, said that would cost ratepayers billions of dollars.
Other lawmakers say HB 6 is tainted.
“What he leaves behind is an image of a tainted bill with dirty fingerprints and dirty money,” state Sen. Kenny Yuko, D-Richmond Heights, said of Rep. Householder. “We have to have good people with good intentions doing good work to get good results. Blemishes like this are not a little blemish, this is a massive blemish. It’s unfathomable what he has done.”
Sen. Yuko, who represents Orange Village, Woodmere and Pepper Pike, voted in favor of HB 6 in 2019. Although the Perry Nuclear Power Plant is not in his district, Sen. Yuko said that it benefits his constituents. Many people of District 25 work at the plant, he said, and it supports families, the Perry Local School District and the economy. Now that a shadow has been cast on HB 6, Sen. Yuko said, it should be repealed and replaced.
Since 2016, Sen. Yuko accepted $7,500 in campaign contributions from the FirstEnergy Political Action Committee, according to campaign finance reports. He said that he has not decided yet if he will return the funds from FirstEnergy. Sen. Yuko said that he does not want to rush a decision because FirstEnergy has not been charged with a crime. FirstEnergy is now known as Energy Harbor following Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.
Rep. Robinson voted against HB 6 because it would increase carbon emissions in Ohio, increase Ohioans’ electric bills and risk 112,000 clean energy sector jobs. HB 6 also lacked accountability measures for FirstEnergy and forced taxpayers to support two failing coal-burning plants in Indiana, he said.
Rep. Robinson said that Ohio needs a more comprehensive energy plan. He plans to cosponsor legislation from Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, to repeal HB 6. Rep. Robinson is also calling for Rep. Householder to resign.
Rep. Robinson represents Chagrin Falls, Moreland Hills, Bentleyville, Solon, Gates Mills and Hunting Valley.
Rep. Robinson received an unsolicited $1,000 campaign contribution in March from a FirstEnergy PAC, according to campaign finance reports. Rep. Robinson explained that all eligible employees at FirstEnergy can make a voluntary contribution to FirstEnergy’s PAC. A board of employees approves all decisions regarding the PAC’s political contributions budget. After the speaker’s bribery scheme was exposed, Rep. Robinson donated $500 to the Ohio Environmental Council and $500 to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
State Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, also voted against HB 6 last year because it rolled back green energy standards. She said that her constituents in urban areas are more likely to deal with pollution and develop health problems such as asthma and bronchitis.
Rep. Brent said that she was not aware of the bribery and racketeering scheme at the time of the vote, but now it makes sense why Republican candidates raised much more money than Democratic candidates in the 2018 election. She did not receive any contributions from the FirstEnergy PAC or the other five individuals charged with criminal activity.
“I’ve been a hard no about this bailout,” she said. “Why should we help a major energy company bail out? We’re not trying to bail out our school districts or people being affected by the pandemic. It was a poor use of efforts to try to bail out an energy company to the tune of $1 billion.”
State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, received $15,500 in campaign contributions from the FirstEnergy PAC since 2016, according to campaign finance reports. Sen. Dolan said that he is not influenced by anything other than the merits of the bill. He advised that senators plan to return contributions from FirstEnergy and his funds will go to local charities in District 24. His district includes Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Chagrin Falls, Bentleyville and Solon.
“[Nonprofits like a 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(3)], whether you like them, they are legal entities that can be set up,” Sen. Dolan said on Monday. “So the fact that there was money being spent on pro HB 6 in and of itself didn’t raise illegal red flags, it just raised that obviously somebody really wanted this bill to pass.
“How Larry Householder and his people operated those 501(c)(3)s and (c)(4)s as we’re seeing now through the affidavit is the problem,” the senator added.
Sen. Dolan said that he voted for HB 6 last year because there are 2,000 jobs associated with running nuclear power plants and the plants represent 90 percent of Ohio’s fossil fuel free energy output. He said that he supported the bill because there was an audit provision to ensure that Energy Harbor [FirstEnergy] still needed the subsidy. Following Rep. Householder’s exposed scandal, Sen. Dolan said that the public trust is gone and the legislature should revisit HB 6.
HB 6 likely will be repealed and replaced, said Sen. Dolan, who is working to get Ohio on a path to alternative energy.
Rep. Grendell said the decision to vote for the bill was difficult because nobody likes subsidizing a poorly run company, but she stands by the bill because it is clean, safe and less costly. Repealing the bill would not be good at this time, she said, because it would cost ratepayers $2.3 billion while the state economy is at a low point and people have lost their jobs.
“Regarding HB 6, I voted for it because I believed, and still do, that it was good for Ohio jobs and energy customers,” she said in a written statement. “It reduced the clean energy rate that customers were paying, and reverted those dollars from less-efficient and far less utilized ‘clean energy’ sources like windmills and solar, and put them toward more efficient, sustainable and widely used clean energy sources like natural gas and nuclear.”
Rep. Grendell did not receive any funds from the FirstEnergy PAC, according to campaign finance reports. She represents Bainbridge, Russell, South Russell, Chester, Auburn, Burton and Newbury.
State Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson, who supported HB 6, said the underlying policy was “right on the button.” The senate successfully amended accountability clauses for the nuclear power plants, he added.
Clean energy and the jobs connected with nuclear power plants are good for Ohio, he said. Sen. Eklund represents Bainbridge, Russell, South Russell, Chester, Auburn, Burton and Newbury.
“The jobs they provide to union laborers and part-time suppliers is, that’s into the several thousands of jobs and families up in Lake County who have relied upon the nuclear power plant and the taxes it generates for years,” he said on Monday. “If those plants close, the short and long of it is they cannot be repurposed, at least not very quickly.”
Sen. Eklund said that he is not in favor of repealing HB 6 because the policy that he was originally in favor of has not changed. He received a $4,000 contribution from the FirstEnergy PAC in April of 2016, according to campaign finance reports.
Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Rep. Jessica Miranda, D-Forest Park, introduced legislation to update and reform Ohio’s campaign finance law. Secretary of State Frank LaRose has voiced support for the proposal.
Reporters Samantha Cottrill and Collin Cunningham contributed to this story.