By JULIE CARR SMYTH
CINCINNATI (AP) — Former Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder directly contradicted FBI testimony in his corruption trial Wednesday, taking the stand for the first time to deny attending a series of swanky dinners in Washington, D.C. where prosecutors have alleged he and executives of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. hatched a $60 million bribery scheme in 2017.
Householder, 63, looked relaxed and confident during his first day of testimony, setting the stage by describing his lifetime lived in a single rural Ohio county, his early political-underdog days and his rising path to become speaker. His wife of 38 years, Taundra, sat facing him from the gallery.
The trial is in its fifth week before a jury and U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black in Cincinnati.
Householder and Matt Borges, 50, a lobbyist and former Ohio Republican Party chair, have been charged with conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering. Federal prosecutors allege Householder controlled a scheme, secretly funded by FirstEnergy, to elect allies, win the speakership, pass a $1 billion nuclear plant bailout and that Borges sought to bribe an operative for inside information on the referendum to overturn it. Both have pleaded not guilty and maintain their innocence. Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Householder told jurors that he invented the strategy of recruiting large numbers of like-minded Republican House candidates and setting up expensive operations to help them all get elected at once, requiring the raising of large sums of money. But he denied demanding loyalty oaths from his recruits or extracting promises to vote a certain way.
“I really looked for people who are independent-minded,” he said.
Three of Householder’s former caucus members testified last week that he pressured them to vote for the bill, and texts were presented in which Householder appeared to express anger at disloyalty.
Associate Jeff Longstreth, among four other individuals and a dark money group charged in the scheme, had testified for the prosecution that Householder wanted “casket carriers,” people so loyal they would carry his casket on the day of his funeral. Householder told jurors “casket carriers” were just friends, and that a long-time politician like him doesn’t need anymore enemies.
In another denial of previous allegations, Householder said he never granted Statehouse superlobbyist Neil Clark, a co-defendant who died by suicide in 2021, a “proxy” to act on his behalf. The former speaker guffawed at the suggestion.
“I don’t give up my right to speak for myself,” he said.
Clark was taped describing himself as Householder’s “proxy” while speaking to two undercover FBI agents posing as developers. He went on to describe in detail Householder’s use of dark money groups to conceal campaign contributions. Householder’s attorneys have said Clark exaggerated.
Perhaps the day’s most striking exchange was when Householder described his trip to Republican President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. He recounted flying to Washington on a FirstEnergy plane, then outlined his weekend activities in detail — photo opportunities, cocktail parties, balls, parades, a concert with his son and pizza with a wife “addicted” to it.
Missing from the account were several dinners, which earlier documents had shown were arranged by Longstreth, head of the dark money Generation Now, to involve then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones, Vice President Michael Dowling and others. Householder said he had not attended any such dinners. He said he saw Jones on the plane flights to and from the inaugural, and then throughout the weekend only at a “packed” house party hosted by media consultant Rex Elsass and perhaps once more in passing. Asked if he attended the dinners, Householder simply said, “No” or “I was not.”
Earlier in the trial, FBI Agent Blane Wetzel had walked through internal documents from both Generation Now and FirstEnergy, phone records, emails and other documents indicating Jones, Dowling and Householder were part of a party of eight that met three times in D.C. over Trump’s inaugural weekend.
It was about two weeks later that Longstreth opened a bank account for Generation Now, through which FirstEnergy admitted in an agreement to avoid prosecution to pushing millions of bribes aimed at getting the bailout bill passed. The same day, Longstreth emailed Dowling “wiring instructions” for FirstEnergy to put money in the account. Regular $250,000 began flowing.
Longstreth and Generation Now have pleaded guilty to their parts in the bribery scheme, as has a third individual, Juan Cespedes, who testified last week. Clark had pleaded not guilty.
Cross-examination of Householder had not yet begun at day’s end Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Statehouse lobbyist Robert Klaffky testified to being present at a meeting where a $400,000 check from his client, FirstEnergy Solutions, was given to Householder in an envelope. Klaffky said he could not remember what was said at the meeting, but that he was certain he had not witnessed pay-to-play.
Klaffky said he was already a Householder insider and adviser before taking on FirstEnergy Solutions, a subsidiary that owned the two nuclear plants, as a client — and wanting him to win the speakership.
Borges’ attorney, Karl Schneider, said he expected his client also to take the stand.