Householder's claims questioned as corruption testimony ends

CINCINNATI (AP) — Government prosecutors used former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder 's own speeches, photographs and conversations against him on Thursday, as they sought to unravel the Republican's denials of key elements of the secretly funded $60 million racketeering scheme that they allege he carried out on behalf of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.

Both Householder and co-defendant Matt Borges rested their cases in the pair's corruption trial in U.S. District Court, as did the government, which sends the state’s largest ever corruption trial into its final phase. Closing statements are scheduled to begin Tuesday.

On Householder's second day on the stand, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter questioned the timeline Householder provided on Wednesday of his January 2017 visit to Washington, D.C., for former President Donald Trump's inauguration. She also pushed back against his claims that he never saw early drafts of the legislation that bailed out two FirstEnergy Solutions nuclear plants nor ever got involved in planning attack ads funded by dark money that helped him secure reelection to the House in 2018.

Householder, 63, and Borges, 50, a lobbyist and former Ohio Republican Party chair, have been charged with conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise involving bribery and money laundering. Federal prosecutors allege Householder controlled a scheme, secretly funded by FirstEnergy, to elect allies, win the speakership, pass a $1 billion nuclear plant bailout and run a dirty tricks campaign to foil a referendum effort. Borges is accused of offering a bribe for inside information on that campaign. Both have pleaded not guilty and maintain their innocence. Each faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

After appearing relaxed and confident on his first day of testimony, Householder grew testy and argumentative at times Thursday. U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black scolded him loudly at one point to stop responding to questions with questions. Householder apologized, though he had to be repeatedly reminded.

After presenting jurors in the trial’s fifth week with photographic metadata, documents obtained through search warrants and taped phone calls that contradicted certain details of Householder’s denials, Glatfelter all but accused Householder of lying.

Glatfelter walked Householder through one of his required financial disclosure filings, on which he left off many items made public throughout the government's investigation. Those included the name of one of his businesses; tickets worth as much as $2,500 each to a World Series game in Cleveland that he attended with his wife and where he met up with then-FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones in his corporate box; large debts on two credit cards; and a languishing unpaid lien.

Householder initially testified that he never reviewed the form, until Glatfelter reminded him that his e-signature amounted to a legal promise that it had been “prepared and carefully reviewed" by him — “just like today, the oath you're under.”

On further questioning, Householder said an attorney had advised him that the items she listed were not required to be listed, standing by the form as accurate, legal and thorough.

Jurors also heard taped phone calls in which Householder and his late co-defendant, Statehouse superlobbyist Neil Clark, plotted a nasty attack ad and contemplated revenge against two lawmakers who had angered Householder in expletive-laced fashion. “We like war, you know that, Neil,” Householder is heard saying. He asks Clark whether a “movement” should be made against the two legislators, "Just to sit there and say, ‘If you f—- with me, I’m gonna f—- with your kids.'”

Householder persisted to testify that he never retaliated against those who voted counter to his wishes or donated to his rivals. He also told jurors that there was nothing unusual about him deleting off his cellphone the call record between him and Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who had part of the responsibility of deciding whether the referendum against the energy legislation, known as House Bill 6, made the statewide ballot.

“I generally delete as much as I can off my phone, because I don’t like to pay storage costs,” Householder said.

A key focus of the day was whether Householder had attended a dinner at the swanky Charlie Palmer's Steakhouse in Washington, at which the government alleges a dark money group accused in the scandal, Generation Now, was hatched during Trump's inaugural weekend. Householder and his son Luke traveled to and from the event on a FirstEnergy plane. Generation Now was charged in the scheme and has pleaded guilty.

Householder insisted on the stand that he never attended the dinner and did not see Jones, who was supposed to be in attendance, on that day.

FBI Agent Blane Wetzel, who has led the Householder investigation, took the stand after those statements. He described a photograph from Householder associate Jeff Longstreth's phone from that evening, in which Luke Householder and the knee of what looks like the same pants Larry Householder was wearing earlier that day are pictured in a group of men that includes then-FirstEnergy Vice President Michael Dowling.

He said it was taken just after 10:30 p.m. the night of the dinner. The metadata located the photo just alongside Charlie Palmer's.

The day was interrupted briefly by a spectator's medical emergency. As 911 was called and the jury was briefly dismissed, the defendants and their attorneys worked together to move chairs and a coat rack out of the way for emergency responders and Wetzel, who had been in the middle of testifying, rushed to the person's aid. She walked out on her own and Black assured the jury she was being taken care of and would be fine.

Julie Carr Smyth, The Associated Press