COLUMBUS, Ohio — Explosive new details from the United States Department of Justice suggest former Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder was heavily involved in a pay-to-play scandal to try to bring sports betting to Ohio.
Householder, who is facing federal charges of conspiracy in a $60 million bribery scheme involving FirstEnergy and House Bill 6, filed a motion seeking to block the evidence from being heard by jurors in his upcoming trial in January.
The information relates to Neil Clark, an Ohio lobbyist who had also been charged in the scheme, but died by suicide in 2021.
According to the DOJ response to Householder's motion, Clark interacted with undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen to expedite the legislative process for sports betting in Ohio in 2019. The DOJ says Clark instructed the undercover agents to pay $50,000 to $100,000, which would eventually end up going to Householder and his associates through his dark money account, Generation Now.
"Nobody knows the money goes to the Speaker's account," Clark told the undercover agents, according to court papers.
Late last December, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed House Bill 29, bringing an end to a years-long process to legalize sports gambling in Ohio. Sports betting in Ohio will officially begin on January 1, 2023.
3News spoke with Jonathan Entin, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, who says the government is trying to establish that Householder is at the center of the scandal.
"The government is basically saying that Householder was at the center of the biggest political corruption scandal in Ohio history," said Entin.
The pay-to-play scandal erupted in July 2020, when federal officials accused FirstEnergy of secretly funding a $60 million bribery scheme to win legislative approval for a $1 billion bailout for two Ohio nuclear power plants. Householder, Clark, and three others were charged with conspiracy. Householder pleaded not guilty, but was expelled from the Ohio House in June of 2021.
Clark told the undercover agents that they referred to FirstEnergy as "the Bank." Clark went on to add "they've got too much money, too much power," federal prosecutor allege.
FirstEnergy attorneys admitted in court papers that two senior executives, former CEO Chuck Jones and executive Michael Dowling, "devised and orchestrated FirstEnergy's payments to public officials in exchange for favorable legislation and regulatory action."
The company signed a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department in July of 2021, agreeing to pay a $230 million penalty. A federal charge of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud will be dismissed against FirstEnergy in 2024 if the company abides by a long list of reforms listed in the agreement.
Householder wants the information from the Clark recordings with undercover agents to be viewed as hearsay and inadmissible. However, the government contends prior case law allows the agents to testify about what Clark said in an effort to show that Clark and Householder were in the scandal together.
"The precise issue before the court is whether statements that Mr. Clark made to undercover agents can be used against Householder at his criminal trial," said Entin.
Entin told 3News he believes Householder will not attempt to agree to a plea deal and that this case will go to trial.
You can read the Justice Department's document below: