COLUMBUS, Ohio — The arrest of Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder last Tuesday on a federal racketeering charge marked a stunning fall for one of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Despite his larger than life presence in Capitol Square, he was not exactly a household name until he made national news in his downfall. And to those who have followed his career closely, the allegations against him didn’t exactly come as a surprise.
Householder, a Republican farmer and former insurance salesman from rural Perry County, has ruled the Ohio House of Representatives since January 2019. It was the second time he’d held the job. He served a previous stint as speaker from 2001 through 2004, leaving, as it turns out, amid another FBI investigation that never produced any charges.
Starting shortly after he was re-elected to the Ohio House in November 2016, he engineered an impressive political comeback, recruiting and cobbling together a coalition of supporters that eventually included Democrats. Federal agents have said his achievement was accomplished through corruption, alleging FirstEnergy gave Householder’s political operation $60 million in a corrupt exchange for a $1 billion nuclear bailout law.
Householder is regarded as charming and a cunning political tactician, often difficult to read and for those who don’t know better, easy to underestimate.
Chris Redfern, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman who was the top Democrat in the Ohio House during Householder’s first term as speaker, said he wasn’t among the optimists, including within his party, who believed there was a Householder 2.0.
“He’s from Appalachia. He has chip on his shoulder, and wanted to show big city legislators, both Republican and Democrat, what a powerful person he was,” Redfern said. “He did that when he first took power, and now he’s done it again. And he did that by assimilating people, raising an inordinate amount of money in exchange for access, and he was blinded by it. And now he’s in trouble.”
Sandy Theis, a Democratic political consultant who previously investigated Householder when she was the Columbus bureau chief for The Plain Dealer during his previous term as speaker, said the new charges reveal a level of audacity she hadn’t expected.
“Here you have a guy who the FBI took a very, very hard look at and he managed to skate,” she said. “And then he comes back and gets his old job back, he does some things right, and then he puts in place what appears to be an incredibly sophisticated criminal enterprise. That took a lot of thought.”
Householder’s second term has lasted 18 months. It started in a bipartisan fashion, helping Republican Gov. Mike DeWine pass a hike in the state’s gas tax to pay for road and bridge projects and pushing for a budget that raised social-services spending and cut taxes. He pledged to finally fix Ohio’s system of funding public schools, a cause his advisers described as a key motivating force in his desire to get back into politics.
Although there were signs of tension before, this feel-good picture worsened after the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. After weeks of widespread business closures that aimed to contain the spread of the virus at the expense of the state’s economy, Householder began agitating to re-open the state before DeWine was fully ready.
He emerged as a consistent foil to DeWine on the coronavirus, despite DeWine’s widespread public support. He passed legislation to lessen the penalties for violating public-health orders, prompting a veto from DeWine. Another House bill, blocked by the Senate, would have required state contact tracers to get written permission before conducting interviews with people possibly exposed to COVID-19.
Householder told reporters he was just following the lead of pandemic skeptics within his caucus, although he himself conspicuously refused to wear a face mask. He made a point to block a Democratic resolution that would have required them on the House floor and in committee rooms.
Householder during his tenure also demonstrated a trademark socially conservative streak, combined with a willingness to use his ability to control the state budget as a cudgel. He threatened public-library funding last June over a pair of LGBT-themed teen events at a pair of Central Ohio libraries. And in June, citing his displeasure with how city police had handled protests that led to damage to the Statehouse, he threatened to either cut local government funding to Columbus or even somehow withdraw Capitol Square from the city altogether.
His toughest political victory, though, may have been getting the legislature to approve House Bill 6, which aims to direct $1 billion to two Ohio nuclear plants owned by a FirstEnergy spin-off. The cause is something Householder has long supported, but in this case, it helped raise millions of dollars for his successful campaign to become speaker and build what looked like a permanent political infrastructure.
HB6 was the basis for his arrest last week — the FBI said Householder corruptly traded $60 million in campaign money from FirstEnergy — some of which helped him become speaker — in exchange for the bailout.
An 81-page charging document describes a “pay to play” scheme orchestrated by Householder with the help of two members of his inner circle: Jeff Longstreth, his top political aide and Neil Clark, a longtime Columbus lobbyist who was a close adviser. It also alleges that Householder misappropriated $400,000 in campaign funds for his personal use, including $100,000 he’s alleged to have spent fixing up his house in Florida.
The allegations throw into sharp relief the dark side of Householder people in Columbus have long described — politically ambitious, even ruthless. But his story starts with humble beginnings.
Much of this story was re-written from a cleveland.com profile of Householder from June 2019, a different era when those in state political circles were optimistic about what his tenure might bring.
As a side note, of the people originally quoted in that story — Clark and Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican Party chairman turned lobbyist who was involved in the HB6 campaign — also were charged last week.
Householder, born in 1959, like his father and grandfather grew up on a farm near Junction City, a village of fewer than 1,000 people in rural Perry County, an hour east of Columbus. He graduated from New Lexington High School before attending Ohio University, where he received a political science degree.
He and his wife, Taundra, a public-school teacher, have five sons. A sixth child, daughter Kaley, died in 1992 at age three in a freak accident involving a power window in the Householder family’s minivan.
Householder received his state insurance agent license in 1981, state records show, and founded his own business selling policies for State Farm. He also farmed, and in 1991 bought 100 acres off Township Road 19, near Glenford in Perry County, that he still owns today.
He was elected Perry County commissioner in November 1994. Two years later, he ran for the Ohio House of Representatives and won, defeating an incumbent Athens County Democrat.
Democrats soon began comparing him to another country insurance agent, Vern Riffe, the longtime Democratic House speaker for whom a state office tower is named today. That comparison has stuck.
Householder was an outsider, unfamiliar to then-Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a moderate Republican from suburban Columbus who was close to state party leadership and remains influential today.
“They wanted him to be a back-bencher when he first got elected,” Jim Trakas, a former Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman who was among the state representatives Householder helped get elected, said in an interview in 2019, long before this week’s scandal. “He didn’t want to be a back-bencher.”
Householder bucked caucus leadership, campaigning on his own to get elected to the sixth-highest ranking position in House leadership. Householder drove to personally meet with disaffected House members to ask for their vote.
“I began to realize from their comments that that hadn’t been done – that no one had really sat down and spent much time with them,” Householder told The Plain Dealer in 2000.
“And that struck me as sort of odd, and I thought at the time that there might be an opportunity down the road that I could serve as speaker,” he said.
The problem was that Davidson, who was set to retire in 2000 due to term limits, had her own successor in mind. She wanted then-state Rep. Bill Harris, a car dealer from Ashland. Householder responded by forming a team and recruiting his own candidates for more than a dozen open seats, aggressively raising money to help them campaign.
Although Householder’s candidates overwhelmingly won their races, he eventually struck a deal with party leaders under which Harris would serve as speaker for a year in 2000, with Householder taking the job in 2001.
But circumstances created an opening for Householder — GOP state Sen. Dick Schafrath, a former Cleveland Browns player, wanted to retire from politics. Trakas said Householder found out about it, and helped find Schafrath find a job in then-Gov. Bob Taft’s administration so he could continue to receive health insurance.
Schafrath’s soft landing created an open state Senate seat, to which Harris ended up getting appointed. And Householder was unopposed to become House speaker.
“He’s always been a brilliant tactician and strategist,” Trakas said.
As speaker, Householder, who’d run for the Statehouse on an education platform, in March 2001 introduced a school-funding formula that called for spending an extra $3.2 billion over two years, four times as much as Gov. Bob Taft had proposed. Two years before, the Ohio Supreme Court had found the state’s method of funding schools unconstitutionally relied on local property taxes. The case’s plaintiff, Nathan DeRolph, was a 15-year-old Perry County student.
The proposal was a non-starter due to its price tag, and Taft and then-Senate President Richard Finan killed it.
Later that year, a $1.5 billion budget gap emerged due to a slowing economy, and Householder announced his support for a package of tax hikes to help close it. The next day, Householder moved a package of socially conservative policies, including one bill mandating a “minute of silence” in public schools and another condemning gay marriage.
“There is no vote-bartering going on,” Householder told The Plain Dealer at the time. He said rather that he was trying to keep his caucus happy.
A 2000 Plain Dealer article details some more flexible aspects of Householder’s political ideology, shaped by his experiences growing up in coal country. The article describes Householder’s pro-union sympathies, and his belief that government has a role in helping the vulnerable. He liked to tell how his grandfather, a postal carrier, delivered food to those in need during the Great Depression. He praised the United Mine Workers for improving working conditions in his community.
In 2003, another budget deficit emerged. Householder that year helped push through a hike in the state’s gas tax, 6 cents over three years, as well as a 1-cent hike to the state sales tax.
But he all the while continued to butt heads with other Republican officeholders, due in part to aggressive fundraising tactics by him and his close aides.
The situation came to a head in an anonymous letter said to have been penned by a “high-ranking employee of a Republican officeholder.”
The nine-page memo was explosive. Addressed to then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the FBI’s Cleveland office, the Internal Revenue Service in Columbus and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, it alleged Householder and two top aides were getting kickbacks from vendors to the House GOP campaign fund.
A three-year investigation, in which bank records for the campaign funds and their vendors were subpoenaed, ensued.
The investigation closed without charges, but months of reports followed describing Householder’s aides pressuring members to donate money, and revealing contracts that paid them exorbitantly to manage party funds and supposedly independent issue campaigns. Private memos written by Householder’s political team and other records were leaked to The Plain Dealer, revealing an unimplemented plan to destroy Blackwell’s career and eventually elect Householder governor. Then-state Auditor Betty Montgomery accused one Householder aide of threatening state vendors unless they donated to a favored candidate.
Even before the scandal, Householder’s personal relationships had frayed with Taft, Finan and others. Jeff Jacobson, a former state senator who’s now a lobbyist, said in a 2019 interview that some found Householder’s assertive, independent style to be abrasive.
“He had a lot of confidence in what he was doing, and he didn’t think his job was to wait on whatever the governor happened to be wanting to do,” Jacobson said. “‘You don’t want me to do this bill? I’ll kill that bill.’ …It didn’t always go over well. It wasn’t just staff he’d get into arguments with.”
But Householder had plenty of supporters, and was seen as someone reliable who could get things done.
“Larry is a very hard-working, loyal guy. I thought he did a nice job as speaker,” John Mahaney, a longtime lobbyist for the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants told the Associated Press in 2015. “His staff didn’t do him any favors, but he himself certainly was four-square with me. His word was his bond, as I prided myself at having mine be over the years. Also, we’re a couple of hillbillies — him from Glenford, me from Zanesville — so we got along.”
Householder left office in 2004 due to term limits, abandoning plans to run for state auditor. With the FBI investigation still hanging over his head, he instead ran for Perry County auditor, narrowly winning the November election.
He then was engulfed in local political drama, with a longtime auditor’s office employee emerging to challenge him for his seat.
Householder placed her on paid leave. A former Perry County Republican Party chairman challenged Householder in the May 2006 GOP primary, but lost.
Perhaps sensing defeat in what turned out to be a Democratic wave election year, Householder later that year opted not to seek re-election, conceding the race and leaving politics.
Householder remained in private business, serving on a New Lexington bank board, managing his farm and making investments in the energy industry. His campaign website doesn’t mention his tenure as county auditor, saying he spent the intervening years tending to his business ventures and helping raise his sons.
After spending years out of the limelight, Householder began his political return in 2015, making moves to run for his old state representative seat.
“The issues you hear from about everybody is a return to traditional values,” Householder told the Newark Advocate. “They think that government, in particular, isn’t doing enough to try to bring back traditional families. Our region has been left out of a lot of success the rest of the state has seen. I felt it was time for me to step up and go back to Columbus.”
Some of the lingering harsh feelings about his tenure as speaker re-emerged in July 2016 after Householder was selected to commemorate Bob Bennett, the late longtime state GOP chair, at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. This angered some Ohio Republicans, including now-Attorney General Dave Yost, who viewed it as a snub to Davidson.
Householder was elected back to the Statehouse in November 2016, alongside now-President Donald Trump. He and his family flew to Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., in a private plane owned by FirstEnergy, which soon helped underwrite his second campaign for speaker.
Like he did in 1999, Householder assembled a political team, recruited for open seats candidates who backed his leadership and got to work. He met twice a month with supporting Republicans, which his opponents referred to as a “shadow caucus.” (His political team referred to the meetings by a less ominous name, “Every other Thursday.”)
His resulting clash with state Rep. Ryan Smith, favored by outgoing Speaker Cliff Rosenberger as his successor, saw millions of dollars in attack ads funded by dueling dark money groups, including over $1 million spent in Householder’s primary alone. Tensions between Smith and Householder froze House business for much of 2018. Rosenberger resigned shortly before that year’s primary amid reports that the FBI was investigating him.
Householder saw most of the candidates his team recruited for open seats elected, but didn’t have enough Republican votes to win the speaker’s race. The legislature hung in limbo as neither side was able to declare victory.
But in January 2019, Householder had a political breakthrough, getting labor unions to help broker a deal with Democrats to break the stalemate and name Householder speaker.
After vanquishing Smith, Householder addressed the House.
“Over the last 18 years, either this dais has gotten smaller or I have gotten larger,” he joked.
Federal authorities apparently were playing close attention to Householder’s comeback. The criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday describes recorded conversations between Householder and Clark dating back as far as January 2018. It’s unclear if they were investigating at this time or if someone else was recording them and later provided them to authorities.
Shortly after Householder returned to office, he picked two freshman legislators he helped elect, state Reps. Jamie Callender, of Lake County, and Shane Wilkin, of Highland County, to carry the bailout legislation.
In April 2019, House Bill 6 was introduced. The legislation would raise more than $1 billion for two financially troubled nuclear plants owned by FirstEnergy Solutions, a former FirstEnergy subsidiary. Householder and other supporters argued the money would save the jobs of the plants’ thousands of workers, and secure Ohio’s diversity of energy sources. To pay for the nuclear subsidy, it would tack new fees onto electricity bills, offsetting them by eliminating different ones that funded renewable energy programs.
Although he’d apparently secured the loyalty of the members he recruited, the bill was a tough sell for some. Some conservatives saw it as government intrusion into private enterprise. Some progressives viewed it as an unacceptable rollback of renewable energy standards. Critics on both sides of the political aisle saw it as propping up a failing corporation.
Throughout the legislative process, Generation Now, a political nonprofit the FBI says was controlled by Householder, provided air cover, running ads and sending political mailers pressuring members to vote yes.
But Householder got involved personally, too. One unidentified House member went to the FBI after Clark, the lobbyist closed to Householder, pressured him to vote yes. During the May 28, 2019 meeting, Householder texted the member while he was sitting with FBI agents. After the member refused to change their vote, he responded: “I just want you to remember – when I needed you – you weren’t there. twice.” An intermediary later told the unnamed representative to delete the texts.
After the bill eventually passed, and DeWine signed it, opposition began organizing a repeal effort, a process that involves gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures. Householder and his political allies mobilized an unprecedented, sophisticated and expensive campaign to thwart it. That entailed hiring up petitioning firms to make them unavailable for the opposition and hiring “blockers” whose job was to follow the repeal petitioners and make potential signers wary of approaching them. Some fights broke out.
Nick Everhart, a Republican political consultant who worked in support of Smith’s speaker bid, said Householder is a political operative at heart. He compared him to Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Democratic former president and country politician who was a legendary deal-maker in Congress. He said he was surprised about the allegation that Householder misused campaign funds for personal expenses.
“I always took him as being in love with the power game, not in it to get rich, but clearly he was also driven by greed.” he said. “Householder seemed to be driven by being the under-estimated hick from Perry County who came into Capitol Square and beat the ‘experts and insiders’ at their own game.
“At the end of the day I think that operative mentality is what did him in,” he added. “Cleary he had made a promise to FirstEnergy to get it done in exchange for whatever he wanted, and was going to deliver on it at all costs. So instead of being a public servant and Speaker he basically ran point from the inside on a mammoth public affairs and ballot campaign.”
The criminal complaint summarizes the FBI’s view of Householder’s political return. It references FirstEnergy and Generation Now, the political nonprofit controlled by Householder that poured money into his races, promoted House Bill 6 while it was pending before the legislature and through a network of related entities, eventually thwarted a repeal effort financed by natural-gas and environmental interests.
“To summarize, from March 2017 to March 2020, Householder’s Enterprise received approximately $60 million from Company A [FirstEnergy] entities, paid through Generation Now and controlled by Householder and the Enterprise. In exchange for payments from Company A, Householder’s Enterprise helped pass House Bill 6, legislation described by an Enterprise member as a billion-dollar ‘bailout’ that saved from closure two failing nuclear power plants in Ohio affiliated with Company A. The Enterprise then worked to corruptly ensure that HB6 went into effect by defeating a ballot initiative.”
Smith was sidelined following his loss in the power struggle. But he emerged as a vocal critic of House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout he had refused to support. He also didn’t pull punches in his criticism of Householder’s approach to legislating.
“Nope, it’s because I didn’t sell legislation. Everybody knows what’s going on here,” he wrote in May 2019.
Smith, who left the legislature last year to become president of the University of Rio Grande in Gallia County, declined to comment this week on Householder’s Tuesday arrest. But a Tuesday tweet offers a window into how he was feeling that day.