About three years ago, FBI investigators arrested one of Ohio's most well-known politicians, then-state House of Representatives Speaker Larry Householder, in connection with a $60 million bribery conspiracy.
The criminal complaint against him and four co-conspirators is 80 pages long and reads like a John Grisham thriller. According to the accusation, Householder and the others were in charge of a slush fund that collected millions of dollars from three state power firms, according to Grist.
This money was utilized by Householder to assist elect like-minded politicians. In exchange, he aided in the passage of House Bill 6, a bailout package that reduced the amount of renewable energy utilities were forced to purchase by half, abolished energy efficiency regulations, and granted billions of dollars to utilities that operated nuclear and coal power facilities in the state. It was a typical pay-to-win ploy.
A federal jury largely upheld those claims yesterday, convicting former Ohio Republican Party head Matt Borges of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering organization including bribery and money laundering. The two men will be sentenced in the following months and face up to 20 years in jail.
“Larry Householder illegally sold the statehouse, and thus he ultimately betrayed the great people of Ohio he was elected to serve,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Kenneth Parker in a press release.
Borges and Householder plan to appeal the verdict. “This is just step one,” Householder told reporters after the verdict. “Stay tuned.”
The Ohio bribery case is an extreme example of utilities using behind-the-scenes influence on state lawmakers, frequently to relax renewable energy mandates and subsidize the escalating costs of maintaining outdated, polluting power plants.
In 2020, an Illinois utility admitted to bribing the state house speaker, and an Arizona power company admitted to donating millions of dollars to dark-money groups — 501(c)(4) nonprofits that are allowed to pay for political advertising without disclosing the source of the money — in an attempt to elect utility-friendly candidates to the state commission that sets electricity rates.
“You don’t have to look far to see that the FirstEnergy scandal is part of a broader trend,” Dave Anderson, communications and policy manager of the nonprofit watchdog organization Energy and Policy Institute, told Grist in an email.
The Ohio corruption scandal began with a renewable energy bill passed in 2008. Following in the footsteps of other states around the country, the Ohio legislature approved legislation mandating wind and solar projects as well as initiatives to assist citizens and companies in using less energy.
As these initiatives spread across the state, utilities that depended heavily on nuclear and fossil fuel electricity saw their revenues diminish. As a result, they began lobbying the legislature and lavishly funding the election campaigns of affiliated politicians.
Some of these attempts were successful, and the renewable energy requirement was removed by the Assembly in 2014. Nevertheless, relief came too late for one of the utilities, FirstEnergy, which was in the red.
Meanwhile, Householder was contemplating a return to the state House (he had previously served in the early 2000s) and was searching for funding to conduct a successful campaign as well as to assist other politicians run for office. Once Householder was elected, his team formed a dark money group, which FirstEnergy began funding.
FirstEnergy and other utilities reportedly received a $1.3 billion bailout in exchange. House Bill 6 was introduced shortly after Householder assumed the speakership in 2019.
It was billed as an effort to enhance air quality, although it mostly featured coal and nuclear power bailouts. Meanwhile, it reduced energy efficiency efforts and increased bureaucratic barriers to limit the rise of wind power. Eventually, the bill was enacted into law. During a nine-year period, an independent review determined that it will cost Ohioans $2 billion in increased power prices and $7 billion in increased healthcare expenditures (due to deteriorating pollution).