© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Bank

The Power Grab - red with handshake and the Ohio Statehouse - WOSU Public Media and the NPR Network

In our first episode, titled "The Bank," we delve into the shocking arrest of Republican House Speaker Larry Householder and the federal racketeering charges against him.

This explosive case revolves around a controversial $1.5 billion bailout of a nuclear power plant and reveals a massive bribery and money laundering scheme.

From the early days of Householder's political career to his alliance with the Trump campaign, we trace the events that led to this unprecedented scandal.

Join us as we pull back the curtain on Ohio's political machine, exposing the backroom deals, hidden campaign donations and the pressure tactics employed by those in power.

With recordings of clandestine conversations and insights from insiders and FBI agents, we uncover a web of corruption that will leave you shocked.

This is the gripping story of how dark money and dirty politics led to the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio history.

Renee Fox: Warning some of the language heard in this episode could be offensive to young or sensitive listeners.

News Headline Montage: Federal agents arrest one of the most powerful men in Ohio. Republican House Speaker Larry Householder was arrested on racketeering charges. In a federal bribery case that goes back to the controversial bailout of the nuclear power plants. Federal officials call it shameful betrayal of public trust. A $1.5 billion bailout. For a kickback of $61 million. The largest bribery case in Ohio history. The largest bribery money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.

Renee Fox: This story could start in a number of places, like in 1996, when an insurance salesman named Larry Householder ran for office.

He was known as a brash hunter who grew corn and tomatoes in his corner of Ohio's appalachia. He rode a wave of victories on the heels of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, wrestling a seat away from a sitting Democrat in southeast Ohio.

Or perhaps in 2004, when federal investigators looked into Householder over allegations of illegal activity while in office.

But since that case faded away when charges weren't filed and he left office that year, we'll start this story more than a decade later as another wave of rebranded Republican party poured out of Donald Trump and inspired candidates in all types of races across the United States.

Scott Pullins: He was one of the first Trump supporters in Ohio. My name is Scott Pullins. I'm a Mount Vernon, Ohio attorney, and public affairs counselor. I am one of many attorneys for Larry Householder and Friends of Larry Householder, which is his campaign committee. He convinced me to become a Trump supporter and a lot of other people, too.

Renee Fox: Householder saw another chance for his brand of grand old party to take root and hatched a plan. He could run for office again and win by telling voters he'd challenge the establishment and embrace Trump's MAGA agenda.

But the endeavor would be as costly as it was grand. And this time, when the feds came knocking, Householders'plan to bankroll his grab for power in exchange for dishing out corporate welfare would land him a mugshot and a caught in federal prison.

From WOSU Public Media, this is The Power Grab how dark money and dirty politics led to the biggest bribery scandal in Ohio history. I'm your host, Renee Fox. There's the sight of politics. We see the signs, the endless ads, the endorsements and debates, the mailers and radio appearances.

Renee Fox: But there's a curtain separating average Ohioans from the political machine in the state. Most of us don't get to pull that veil back, even if we like to think we're politically informed. There's a piece of the story missing the action behind the scenes, where politicians and their hired guns reveal the real goals, where the real benefits are divvied up, where the real cost is tallied.

In this podcast, we'll pull back that curtain and listen in as insiders strategize how to control messaging, how to hide campaign donations, and how to pressure other lawmakers to bend to their will. The Power Grab will take a tour of Ohio's back rooms and listen in on clandestine FBI recordings of schemes to wrangle power for corporate and personal profits.

Over six episodes, we'll explore the investigation that revealed shocking indictments, an admission of bribery from a Fortune 500 company, plea deals, resignations, a suicide, a federal trial and a 20-year prison sentence. We'll hear from the marks themselves as they plot to prop up one of the state's largest electricity providers and the FBI agents spinning their undercover tails. Dark money is the norm in Ohio politics, but this time the players ventured a little too close to the edge.

FBI Agent Undercover Recording: 2019 4ecorded conversation between myself and Neil Clark 6:08 on July 23, 2019 recorded conversation in Nashville with Neil Clark. A consensual recording with Franklin of Matthew Borges 9:10. September 23, 2019 this will be a recorded conversation with Neil Clark, ourselves and Larry Householder.

Renee Fox: Episode One, The Bank Larry Householder needed a team to return to power, and he forged one. In this episode, we'll learn how. Householder surrounded himself with high-powered lobbyists, a slate of brand new candidates, and a bankroll to bring them all across the finish line.

Their loyalty would make him Speaker of the House, and to get that bankroll, he'd have to give something in return. Householder needed people he could trust and a partner just as ambitious, just as motivated. And he found that in one of the state's largest energy companies.

News Headline Montage: FirstEnergy announced its plans to get out of the competitive. First Energy is confirming what many have feared. FirstEnergy plans to deactivate the plant citing market...

Renee Fox: FirstEnergy also had a problem and a goal. Investing in Team Householder was supposed to get rid of the problem. The company had multiple subsidiaries with different names in their various energy-related ventures in Ohio and the region.

Back in 2016, around the time Householder returned to the Ohio House, FirstEnergy owned two nuclear power plants in Ohio under the name FirstEnergy Solutions. But with an influx of cheap natural gas in the state, these power plants on Lake Erie were struggling.

News Headline Montage: FirstEnergy Solutions has some decisions to make with the future of two nuclear power plants in Ohio. You're learning tonight. Both the Perry nuclear power plant in Lake County and the Davis Bessie plant near Port Clinton are slated to shut down. It is closing all of its nuclear power plants.

Renee Fox: In 2016, the company told shareholders the plants were losing money and the losses only grew in 2017. They looked for legislative solutions. They wanted public money to keep the plants afloat, to either make returns on the plants or to make them more marketable in a sale.

Bankruptcy was on the table, but prosecutors say the state's House Republicans weren't interested in pushing forward the legislation FirstEnergy wanted. The company needed someone in place who was more willing, who could set the agenda in their favor. Householder could be that guy, but he'd need money.

At the beginning of 2017, Householder and FirstEnergy executives got together at Trump's inauguration. There, prosecutors say they worked out a way to distribute vast amounts of cash and keep it off of campaign finance reports.

Renee Fox: The plan was taking shape. While FirstEnergy budgeted cash for the endeavor, Householder gathered the rest of the team. He needed a proxy, someone to carry out his wishes while he conducted official business. He brought in a key member of his crew Neil Clark.

Neil Clark: I wish actually, I was a proxy.

Renee Fox: We'll hear from Clark in a lot of these recordings. A quick note the FBI recordings used in the podcast have been enhanced with audio tools to make them easier to understand. The content has not been edited.

The FBI focused on Neil Clark, an embedded Columbus lobbyist who had a rocky past with Householder but went to bat for him anyway.

Neil Clark: It's somebody else's guy. My guy is Larry Householder. He goes, yeah, we all know.

Renee Fox: While the two worked together, they were in near constant communication. From Clark.

Neil Clark: His demands, his expectations, are 24 hours a day, seven days a week, period, period. With no exeception. Whether it's by texting, by phone, you all learn that.

Renee Fox: The two dissected political donations. The first voice is Householder.

Larry Householder: We got two checks for $10,000 total to the C4.

Neil Clark: Okay? For 10,000 total.

Larry Householder: Yes.

Neil Clark: Okay.

Larry Householder: First check was $4,999.

Neil Clark: And that came from whom?

Larry Householder: Charter.

Renee Fox: And they discussed campaign costs like in this phone call before the 2018 primary. Here's Clark.

Neil Clark: The first numbers that clearly give me a picture, a snapshot of that particular moment that day. And I come to the conclusion that you're looking at about a $3.7 million expenditure in the primary by just doing some basic things for some people.

Renee Fox: While Householder had secured a seat in the House a few years before, he found himself with few allies. The Republican caucus held a supermajority in the chamber. And they had a succession line planned for the next speaker. They pushed back against Householder's ambition.

Scott Pullins: He was the outsider again. The political establishment at the time in the House did not want him back.

Renee Fox: Householder needed some back up – and a few million dollars to make sure his chosen house members made it to the stage where they could support his agenda in a voting block. A block of state reps. so dependent on Householder for their newly found positions, that loyalty was their only choice.

Neil Clark: When you work for him, you work. You do what you’re supposed to do and don’t fucking whine about it.

Renee Fox: Much of this story can be told as interlocking rings of relationships of influence – forged at tables gilded with pricey dinners and perks – like flights on private jets to President Trump’s inauguration and quid pro quo checks slid across the table as Householder’s grab for power and influence blossomed with each successful stage of the plot. But as it grew, it became harder to keep under wraps.

David DeVillers: We had an idea, you know, something funky was going on. That's how I kind of started in on it.

Renee Fox: That's former U. S. Attorney David DeVillers. He led the Department of Justice's office in Cincinnati during the Trump administration. The FBI sent in agents disguised as real estate developers to find out more. They worked their way to a seat at one of those gilded tables. This one was at the exclusive Aubergine Dining Club in the Columbus suburb, Grandview Heights. That's where they got Householder, Clark, some staffers and sitting Rep. Jay Edwards. Here you'll hear one of the undercover agents asking Neil Clark about the location.

Neil Clark: So it's a private club.

Undercover FBI Agent: You belong here?

Neil Clark: Yes. I opened it for today, so its expensive. I told him it was going to be private. So it just makes it...

FBI Agent Undercover Recording: This is yours.

Neil Clark: No, it's a private club. This has been around for 30 years, and it was meant for guys like me who wanted to have privacy because no price. Nobody's here. There wasn't even an address there until a couple of days ago.

Renee Fox: Their cover story developers who needed Clark's lobbying expertise to sell lawmakers on the idea of sports gambling operations inside boutique hotels. Ohio lawmakers were still debating how to roll out state sanctioned sports betting rules at the time. At the dinner Clark set up, the FBI and their targets shared some lobster bisque.

Undercover FBI Agent: Wow. That is world famous right there.

Unidentified Chef: The whole stock of the lobster bisque is made with nothing but the bodies of lobsters. One hundred pounds of lobsters are cooked down with amir pois and turned into the essence of lobster stock. Wow.

Renee Fox: One of the undercover agents delivered their cover story. He explained why Ohio should allow sports gambling in hotels. They said they'd have physical sports books that would draw customers in.

Undercover FBI Agent: When you feel special, people are paying, especially your generation. No disrespect. You're paying to feel special. People will spend money. If you lose $100 on your couch on a Saturday night, you're going to feel like shit. You come to my place, you're going to lose $500, and you're going to feel like a champ. You're going to feel like a king, because you're going to be treated like a king. You don't want to lose the $100 on your couch.

Renee Fox: In return, the FBI got an earful. Clark regaled his dinner guests with boast of his influence in Columbus and stories of bravado.

Neil Clark: Our job is to do nothing but make sure that when we have the opportunity, we beat them. We beat them soundly, kiss them in a public area hey, love you. You really nice. Can enter a private environment.

Larry Householder: We kill them, just like Luca Brazi.

Renee Fox: That's Householder at the end. Luca Brazi is the feared and famed hitman and Francis Ford Coppola's, The Godfather, who ends up, quote, sleeping with the fishes. At this September 2019 dinner at Aubergine, the agents listened while Householder, Clark and the others talked about the sports they played in their youth. They exchanged political war stories and trash-talked their enemies. Here, Clark and Householder speak of their mutual dislike of Jo Ann Davidson, the Republican Speaker of the House for six years before Householder's first turn at it in 2001.

Larry Householder: She says to me, your vendettas would kill you. And I said Joanne Vendettas would keep me alive. Getting up every morning, I go, I'm going to fuck you today.

Renee Fox: Householder continued the rant against one of the most revered leaders in Ohio.

Larry Householder: Yeah, but we got her on a run now. She's 90 fucking two years old. We got her on the fucking run. I am going to take the biggest shit on her grave.

Renee Fox: The electorate only ever hears the polished statements, the planned speeches, and the refined messaging. But the FBI recorded these guys holding court, frank and unguarded, comfortable enough for Clark to joke with the FBI that he suspected them of being FBI. This guy's wired before he decided to trust them.

Neil Clark: But I saw the guys, I saw your team of partners. I saw everything. It was good.

Renee Fox: To preserve their cover story, the FBI's fake real estate development company paid Clark $50,000 under the guise they needed his consultation services to favorably influence the developing sports betting law.

Comfortable after a few meetings, Clark regaled his client, the undercover FBI agents, with stories about doing business in Columbus over glasses of high end whiskey, Prosecco and champagne.

Unidentified person: Steaks

Renee Fox: In downtown steakhouses.

Unidentified person: Bone in fillet or prime grade?

Unidentified person: Bone fillet, medium rare.

Renee Fox: In places where the waiters and waitresses knew him by name.

Unidentified waitress: He's in here every night. Don't let it fool you.

Renee Fox: During these dinners, it was usually business first. Clark gave advice and updates. But as the drinks flowed, the conversation livened, and the bombastic storytelling began. Householder told a story about a college dormmate at Ohio University that he didn't like. He was likely from a country in the Middle East.

Larry Householder: Cocky little bastard. And he was fucking all the white weapons. Pissing me off, pissing us all off. And they were very wealthy. They were flying jets here and there and all this shit.

Renee Fox: And how he helped get them deported.

Larry Householder: Because he was supposed to be attending school. And he said no l little bastard.

Undercover FBI Agent: Oh, my God.

Larry Householder: Are you telling me he's not attending class? I said, no.

Undercover FBI Agent: He's here for the chicks.

Larry Householder: Boom, boom, boom. On the door, the little bastard comes up there and these guys grab him and he's squilling like a pig.

Undercover FBI Agent: Immigration?

Larry Householder: Whatever the hell, it worked.

Renee Fox: Much of what they talked about wasn't anything illegal, really.

Neil Clark: Nice guy, but he's got caviar balls. Caviar balls, caviar balls.

Renee Fox: But meant to show how tough they were, how battle tested and battle ready they were.

Neil Clark: Whether it's an issue or the members, you attack the caucus, you attack the member. We're going to fucking repeat that.

Renee Fox: Clark enjoyed telling stories about the schemes his allies were able to get away with that were indeed illegal. He wasn't always a lobbyist. He was a Republican staffer. After college, there was a game he ran in the 80s. He used cash from racetracks to fund a primary race. He was running for a candidate that couldn't use caucus funds.

Neil Clark: To this day, they don't know. And I kept all the cash in plain view. All you had to do is open my desk drawer under paper and it was right there.

Renee Fox: He brought in $250,000 by asking racetracks to hand over revenue from unclaimed credits. The cash from winning tickets that weren't claimed. The lost ticket gambit. In a self published memoir titled "What Do I Know, I'm just a Lobbyist," clark wrote about digging through trash at government buildings to find dirt on opponents. Here, a voice actor reads from the book.

Voice actor as Neil Clark: To live in bipartisan harmony, no respectable person would dumpster dive, having divers hunt for precious gems of information in a community. Garbage fill would be an act of war. Common decency would require the dumpster to be off limits. However, there are always exceptions to the rule.

Renee Fox: He called it a vein of gold in an abandoned mine until someone brought in industrial shredders after they were noticed one night. And there's the illegal habit he and his team had of using public offices to run a war room for campaign activities.

But eventually, Clark spun his experience and access into a career of lobbying and political consulting, where he landed in Team Householder. While Clark helped from behind the scenes, Householder gathered a slate of candidates to join him in office, where they could vote for him as speaker. He needed more than a few on board to upset the power structure already in place.

He identified about 30 people, all men but one or two. Some were incumbents, but most would be new to the State House. He oversaw more than 20 campaigns in the primary, winning most of them.

Renee Fox: And most of the candidates went on to win their general races in November, too.

Larry Householder: I lost 1,2,3,4,5 of my guys.

Neil Clark: Right. That's correct.

Larry Householder: Six of my guys.

Neil Clark: Right. Yeah.

Larry Householder: So I didn't pick up 21 in the primary. I picked up 15 in actuality because I lost them in the general.

Renee Fox: They spent hundreds of thousands on things like media buys. To secure Householder the seats. Using ads like this.

Political Ad: You hear that. There's a stampede heading for Ohio. RINOs - Republicans In Name Only who break whatever they touch.

Renee Fox: Tyler Fehrman, an Ohio native who grew up with connections to Central Ohio Republicans, helped with two campaigns.

Tyler Fehrman: It was made very clear that both of those candidates were Team Householder candidates.

Renee Fox: The Republican Party was buzzing with the news of the splash Householder was planning for the State House.

Tyler Fehrman: I had a lot of good friends who worked inside Ohio politics that were hoping that Larry Householder would be made speaker of the House again.

Renee Fox: But there was some worry about what Speaker Householder 2.0 would look like.

Tyler Fehrman: And there was always a little bit of trepidation where people were like, oh, yeah, but last time it didn't end very well. But everybody said Larry had gone away. He'd changed. He was much calmer, much more laid back, and we were hopeful that he could do some great things inside the State House.

Renee Fox: There was a buzz around the campaigns, the feeling that something big was happening.

Tyler Fehrman: So you've got Larry Householder coming in and promising this great, huge new team of effective public servants a lot of which were like, young, fresh faces who seemed passionate about what they wanted to just it was exciting.

Renee Fox: Tyler says there was a feeling of stagnation in the state's Republican Party, which had gerrymandered its way into a foolproof majority, while the Democrats fought only for scraps.

Tyler Fehrman: And when you are bred in Ohio politics to live for the competition and someone comes along and says, hey, I've got some big ideas, we can get them done. But in order to get them done, we have to do something that's never been done before. We have to run a candidate in every district in the primary so that we have the votes later on to make me the speaker of the House.

Renee Fox: It was a bold plan.

Tyler Fehrman: It's going to be an uphill battle. You want to try it's like the sexy thing, right? It's way more exciting than, oh, yeah, let's just keep doing what we're doing.

Renee Fox: And it worked.

Tyler Fehrman: We ended up winning by a huge margin. And that kind of excitement is the stuff that gets young political operatives just so passionate about their cause. And so it was a team atmosphere.

Renee Fox: And at the center of that team was Householder, the politician, the king. The kingmakers were making.

Tyler Fehrman: He was very arrogant. The few meetings that I had with him where he'd pull a campaign manager, a couple of us, into his office. He would sit across from you in this office that had like, 50 or 60 different custom-made wooden gavels of all different sizes. And he'd be behind this huge desk.

Renee Fox: The power broker who demanded fealty and tithes for his ego in exchange for bringing you to his altar, where he'd prop you up. If you propped him up, you'd be.

Tyler Fehrman: Sitting in a chair that was much shorter than his chair all the way across the room. And a lot of times he'd be wearing, like, real tree camouflage, just sitting there and talking to you, but acting like it was a privilege for you to be in his presence.

Renee Fox: The team spent millions to secure their wins. This ad ran against Householder's opponent during the 2018 primary.

Political Ad: What's wrong with Kevin Black? Taking money raised by people who could end up in jail is not a good idea. We deserve more and Kevin Black should be ashamed. Drain the swamp.

Renee Fox: The FBI has a recording of Householder and Clark strategizing about how to phrase that ad.

Larry Householder: I kind of like the word dark because his name is Black.

Neil Clark: Okay.

Larry Householder: Shadowy. I don't know what shadowy is.

Renee Fox: With bills coming in with five or six digits from media companies, team Householder relied on First Energy's deep pockets to balance the ledger.

Neil Clark: They spent close to $20 million in the last eight weeks. 20 million? How fucking much more? Been there obviously more than 1,000,700 meters.

Renee Fox: The deposits traveled on demand as wire transfers. After all, without the money, Householder wouldn't be able to hold up his end of the bargain. First Energy needed Larry to carry the other candidates into office to wrangle all the power he could into a bill designed to take cash from the people of Ohio and hand it over to his benefactor. The briber the bank.

Neil Clark: FirstEnergy, we call First Energy the bank because they could fund these things for 20 years if they wanted to.

Renee Fox: Here's how the prosecution would lay things out in the opening statement at the 2023 trial. All we have is the transcript. Because recording devices were not allowed in the court.

Voice Actor As A Federal Prosecutor: In March 2017, Householder began receiving quarterly $250,000 payments from First Energy into this Generation Now bank account. By the end of 2017, Larry Householder had amassed $1 million, 1 million in this account just from First Energy. While Householder was stockpiling the First Energy cash, he was building his team.

Renee Fox: And that was just the beginning. By the time it was all said and done, first Energy doled out more than $60 million before indictments and arrests started dropping in 2020. Here Clark explains what they got in return.

Neil Clark: On the HB6, FirstEnergy got $1.3 billion in subsidies repayments. Right. 1.3 billion. First for six years. FirstEnergy for six years.

Undercover FBI Agent: Right. $1.3 billion. Right.

Neil Clark: So a couple hundred grand is dropping a bucket. Yeah. So what do they care about putting in $20 million a year? Yeah, they don't give a shit.

Renee Fox: All of the pieces were in play thanks to FirstEnergy's money. Larry Householder brought an entourage of winning candidates to the Statehouse. It was time to make Householder speaker. Time for FirstEnergy to get what it paid for.

Next week on The Power Grab An Unholy Alliance. Householder musters his political strength to go to bat for FirstEnergy with a bill that came to be known as HB6, or the nuclear bailout legislation. But the power play was met with more resistance than expected, and the team had to dig deep to fight off the opposition. The battle overwhelmed the airwaves.

Campaign Ad: Ohio's politicians have failed us, passing a $1 billion corporate bailout that picks Wall Street over Main Street and sticks you with the bill.

Renee Fox: And when federal investigators looking into corruption in Cincinnati got a tip, all of Team Householders' efforts to keep the scheme out of the public eye started to unravel. And the FBI found more sources for more insider information.

Tyler Fehrman: If you mess with us, we'll blow up your house. Or if you say anything to anyone, this will be bad for us, but it will be much worse for you.

Renee Fox: The Power Grab is a production of WOSU Public Media and part of the NPR Network.

It's written and hosted by me, Renee Fox. The show is produced and edited by Michael DeBonis, audio engineering by Dalton Jones. Additional voice work from Kevin Petrilla and Diana Bergerman.

Help us spread the word about the show. Please subscribe rate and review the show on Apple and Spotify. We'll be back next week. Thanks for listening.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.