Jury hears closing arguments in Householder and Borger bribery trial
Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their closing arguments in the case against Republican ex-Ohio House speaker Larry Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges. The two are accused in a $61 million pay-to-play scheme to legislation to benefit FirstEnergy, which has been called the largest corruption case in Ohio history.
Federal Judge Timothy Black opened court by noting it was a "big day" and then turned things over to federal prosecutor Matthew Singer, who spent the morning laying out the racketeering case against Householder and Borges.
Singer said almost $60 million went through the dark money group Generation Now, a 501(c)4 controlled by Householder that allowed for "secret, undisclosed and unreported" money from FirstEnergy. He said that the utility expected a billion-dollar bailout of two nuclear power plants owned by a FirstEnergy subsidiary in return. Singer said Householder himself got about $500,000, and that he received that money knowing what it was for.
"This is called bribery," Singer said.
Singer said Householder didn't act alone and was "at the top of the criminal conspiracy," and that Borges, who called this "an unholy alliance," came into it late, but "entered it with his eyes open."
Singer noted the case involved thousands of pages of evidence and hours of recordings showing the creation of the dark money group to fund Team Householder candidates, who would help Householder become speaker and support the bailout legislation known as House Bill 6.
The prosecutor reminded jurors they'd heard from Householder strategist Jeff Longstreth and FirstEnergy Solutions lobbyist Juan Cespedes, both of whom have pleaded guilty, and that they'd heard recordings featuring lobbyist Neil Clark, who died by suicide in March 2021 - though jurors hadn't been told that.
In his testimony last month, Longstreth had said the plan was hatched at a dinner during the inauguration weekend for former President Donald Trump in 2017 at a steakhouse in DC.
Householder has said he wasn't at that dinner, but Singer noted emails and photos place him there. Singer said Clark's comments make it clear that Householder was in charge of the conspiracy and the path to Householder was donations to "the speaker's C4" Generation Now, though Householder has said he didn't control the Generation Now account.
Singer also said Householder's deletion of texts, emails and contacts is evidence of concealment, "and it shows corrupt intent."
He said Borges got about $360,000 in six months - $15,000 of which Singer said was used to bribe strategist Tyler Fehrman, who was working on the effort to bring a repeal of the bailout to voters. Fehrman testified he was shaken by the offer and called the FBI and said Borges told him he'd "blow up" Fehrman's house if anyone found out. That repeal effort never made it to the ballot.
The defense takes over
Householder's lawyer Steven Bradley told the jury the government's contention that Householder was bribed is "just a theory or an allegation, is not true, and it’s not borne out by the evidence over the last six weeks."
He said Householder supported the bailout because he believed it was good policy and good for Ohioans, and consistent with his long-held views on the importance of energy generation in Ohio.
Bradley pushed back on the prosecution’s timeline of when Householder met FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones. He called out Longstreth's testimony of the steakhouse meeting, saying a flight plan and a cell phone record showed Jones was in Florida till the next day.
"It didn’t happen. That stinks. It’s false. That’s not true," Bradley said.
He told jurors to treat the testimony of Cespedes and Longstreth with caution because he said they're hoping to satisfy the government before they’re sentenced.
Bradley argued that the prosecution's case is "government bias on full display." He said it was based on a "woefully incomplete investigation" and that "the stuff that really matters, the government turned a blind eye to. The reason being, the government lies."
Bradley closed by saying Householder was engaged “in political activity, not criminal activity,” that there’s no evidence of bribery because there’s no quid pro quo. He said the case is a “nothingburger,” and that the government has failed to present evidence to meet their burden of proof.
Borges' attorney did not mount a defense or call any witnesses during the trial. But Karl Schneider built on Householder’s attorney’s closing argument, telling jurors if they determine there isn't a bribe, there isn't money laundering by his client. And Schneider said Borges was an outsider and wasn't invited to meetings and events.
"If he wasn't an insider, he wasn't an enterpriser," Schneider said, referring to the legal term "enterprise" to describe the group working on criminal activity.
Schneider admits there were millions of dollars spent on the potential ballot issue to repeal House Bill 6. But he said that was "rough and tough politics. It's not unlawful."
Schneider said Borges never intended to bribe FBI informant Tyler Fehrman, who had been working for the group trying to put a repeal of House Bill 6 on the ballot. He suggested Borges was trying to advance Fehrman money and put him on some projects to help him get past his financial issues.
He also said there's no evidence that Borges pressured Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to try to shut down the repeal effort so it wouldn't get before voters.
"Matt's no racketeerer, not a co-conspirator," said Schneider, adding that he "did some things that maybe he's not proud of on the surface, but they're not unlawful."
Federal prosecutors will get a chance at rebuttal Wednesday morning, and then the jury will get the case.