The Year In Scandal: Ohio Statehouse Plagued By Controversies In 2018
In between campaigning and legislating, state lawmakers also found themselves in the middle of some high profile drama and scandal in 2018, including a leadership fight that continued through the end of the year.
In early April, news broke that Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) might be under investigation by the FBI for international travel with payday lenders. Within a week, Rosenberger resigned, though he said in a statement his actions have been both ethical and lawful.
Speaker Pro Tem Kirk Schuring (R-Canton) said Rosenberger put the state and the chamber ahead of himself.
“He saw that because of this inquiry, there were a lot of people asking questions, not just of him but of our members, and it caused a distraction,” Schuring said in April.
The FBI raided Rosenberger’s home in Clarksville and a storage unit in Wilmington a few weeks later. A warrant said they were searching for records related to payday lending legislation and “evidence of payments, kickbacks, bribes or other benefits.”
A 53-page list of items removed from Rosenberger’s Columbus office included more than a half a dozen presidential busts, several bobbleheads of state and national figures, sports and military memorabilia, and artwork including a painting of Rosenberger watching Republican presidents play poker.
The battle to replace Rosenberger started immediately and dragged on for more than a month, as Republicans – who hold a supermajority in the chamber – struggled to unite behind a leader. Before the scandal and his resignation, the term-limited Rosenberger had wanted to see House Finance Committee chair Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) elevated to speaker.
Smith and his backers said he had the votes, but he faced a major challenge from former speaker Larry Householder (R-Glenford). Householder, who wants to lead the chamber starting next year, privately threw his weight behind term-limited Andy Thompson (R-Marietta). But Householder himself was mostly silent, even to other lawmakers.
“I think we have to do the people’s business,” Householder said in May. “That’s what I’m telling them.”
On June 6, Smith, Thompson and surprise entrant Jim Hughes (R-Columbus) battled for GOP votes on the House floor, with most Democrats voting for their own leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton). After 11 rounds, the House dropped the requirement that the winner must get a majority of the 98 members present.
Because of the rule change, Smith was elected speaker with 44 votes.
“I've been through speakership fights before, that there are divisive,” Smith said. “But as I said in the beginning, if there's not retribution, if people feel like they're getting a fair shake, that tends to bring people back together. So just, I don't know what, how to quantify the price that we pay, and frankly I'm just focused on looking forward and try and put everybody back together and keep going.”
Democrats raised concerns this year about claims from state Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Akron). Sykes says Capitol Square security repeatedly asked to search her bag, even when she was wearing her legislator pin and carrying her badge. Other African-American women lawmakers backed her up.
An investigation cleared troopers of wrongdoing, but Sykes said it raises real questions about what people think the face of leadership looks like.
“Is that face a middle aged, white male or is it a millennial black woman?” Sykes said in June. “I’m hopeful that people can start to recognize that the leaders of our communities and the leaders of this state are not monolithic.”
In December, newly-elected state Sen. Tina Maharath levied her own claims against Statehouse security, who she says treated her like she didn’t speak English.
There was also a continuing cloud of sexual harassment allegations over the legislature. In January, longtime lawmaker Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) apologized for comments made at the going-away party and roast for the House Republican caucus’ chief of staff. He called them “ill-advised,” while others said his remarks were derogatory and sexist.
Women lawmakers, including state Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), wanted his resignation.
“When an elected official in one of the highest positions of leadership in the general assembly humiliates victims, mocks sexual harassment and alleged assault, Ohioans deserve a strong response,” Antonio said.
To investigate, the House hired a firm that had worked on nine previous probes – the same firm that Seitz had worked at for 36 years. The firm said there was no conflict of interest, and then cleared Seitz of sexual harassment claims.
Some women lawmakers called for another investigation, which Seitz said was a politically-motivated demand. Democratic bills to crack down on sexual harassment in state government went nowhere.
Interestingly, it was Seitz who helped wrap a story of bad behavior last year that may have cost a lawmaker his seat this year. State Rep. Wes Retherford (R-Hamilton) lost his May primary, a year after he was found passed out in a southwest Ohio McDonald’s drive thru with a loaded handgun in the car. Felony charges were dropped, though Retherford was found guilty of drunk driving.
Seitz paid tribute to his friend in a goodbye on the House floor this month.
“I guess he’ll have more time to go visit McDonald’s now,” Seitz said. “But he’s going to be sure when he orders that Big Mac – two all-beef patties, special sauce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun – he’s going to be sure to say, ‘Hold that special sauce, please.’”
Retherford, who laughed through that farewell speech, said he hasn’t had a drink since his arrest.