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An Unholy Alliance

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

Political alliances forged between rivals are not always pretty. But they often work.

This scheme brought together opposing forces, people who weren’t used to working together, and even hated each other. But, they all had a common goal – propping up FirstEnergy.

The company cried poor mouth as it pitched a bailout to Ohio politicians. But, the company wasn’t too broke to dump millions of dollars in illegal bribes to fund Larry Householder’s takeover of the Ohio House. Or to spend millions of dollars securing the votes of other politicians on both sides of the aisle.

For years, the company worked to get Ohio lawmakers to pass bills to bailo ut First Energy Solutions’ two nuclear power plants. They tried three times, but the bills went nowhere.

This time around, it was “do or die” and they were willing to pay. Pay to get Householder in power as Speaker of the House. Pay to get Republicans to work with Democrats. And pay two GOP lobbyists who hated each other – Neil Clark and Matt Borges – to become partners in crime.

In this episode, we’ll explore how Householder rounded up votes to secure the speakership. And, how he strong-armed opponents of the bill he promised to First Energy, known as HB 6. We’ll see how First Energy’s team reacted to a campaign to fight the bill and how the conspirators scrambled to keep it all together as federal investigators honed in.

But, the resistance to HB 6 wasn’t over. A campaign to overturn the bill was launched but ultimately fell short. Team Householder spent millions to make sure of it.

The FBI was already suspicious and started to make its case behind the scenes. They focused their attention on Neil Clark, one the state’s most well-known lobbyists and second-in command at Team Householder.

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

David DeVillers: So there's three parts to the conspiracy, right? One is to get Larry Householder elected Speaker of the House.

Unidentified Ohio House member: Larry Householder is hereby declared and elected the speaker of the House of Representatives. Is to.

David DeVillers: Two is to get House Bill six passed.

Jamie Callendar: This bill will save ratepayers $1.3 billion.

David DeVillers: And three is to keep it passed.

Larry Householder: The legislature votes on something it needs to stay law.

Renee Fox: 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

In our last episode, we learned of a political scheme to bring Larry Householder to power. First Energy wanted Ohioians to bail out their underperforming nuclear p ower plants in exchange for introducing a bill that would pay subsidies to the company. Householder received all the capital he needed to fund a slate of loyal candidates. And the strategy paid off. But getting the job done would require putting results over ethics and profit over principle.

Episode Two: An Unholy Alliance

Political alliances forged between rivals are not always pretty. But they often work.

This scheme brought together opposing forces, people who weren’t used to working together, and even hated each other. But, they all had a common goal – propping up First Energy.

The company cried poor mouth as it pitched a bailout to Ohio politicians. But, the company wasn’t too broke to dump millions of dollars in illegal bribes to fund Larry Householder’s takeover of the Ohio House. Or to spend millions of dollars securing the votes of other politicians on both sides of the aisle.

For years, the company worked to get Ohio lawmakers to pass bills to bailo ut First Energy Solutions’ two nuclear power plants. They tried three times, but the bills went nowhere.

This time around, it was “do or die” and they were willing to pay. Pay to get Householder in power as Speaker of the House. Pay to get Republicans to work with Democrats. And pay two GOP lobbyists who hated each other – Neil Clark and Matt Borges – to become partners in crime.

In this episode, we’ll explore how Householder rounded up votes to secure the speakership. And, how he strong-armed opponents of the bill he promised to First Energy, known as HB 6. We’ll see how First Energy’s team reacted to a campaign to fight the bill and how the conspirators scrambled to keep it all together as federal investigators honed in.

But first, how a corporation with deep pockets got political enemies to work together…

There are a lot of players on the green in Ohio’s capital. And even though Republicans hold a supermajority, they have their own factions.

Clark called some of them “Cavemen” in his self-published memoir

Voice Actor As Neil Clark: The Ultra Conservative Caveman Faction. Ben Gaeth, Buzz Kuken, Mike DeWine, John Kasich, Tom Van Meter, Gary Suhadolnik, Paul Matia, Tom Walsh, Bill Ress.

Renee Fox: Here, a voice actor, reads from Clark's book. Most drink the Kool-Aid of a smaller government. No new taxes and the evils of welfare handouts. Most reflected the extreme attitudes of a small portion of their districts.

Voice Actor As Neil Clark: Most drank the Kool-aid of a smaller government, no new taxes, and the evils of welfare ‘handouts.’ Most reflected the extreme attitudes of a small portion of their districts.

Renee Fox: In addition to sects among both parties, each lawmaker carries a unique combination of values and special influences, of pet projects and regional interests. Oh, and donors of course.

With nearly as many teams as there were players, First Energy couldn’t gamble on just one horse in the race.

No, there was a billion dollars at stake. That billion dollars would come from new charges tacked on to electric bills in the name of saving the power plants on Lake Erie.

The company used its influence to seek advantageous laws and terms from other states and the federal government.

In Ohio, First Energy brought on several lobbyists and firms to work in tangent to Householder. Executives, lobbyists and other staff created hundreds of documents outlining their strategy. They used diagrams and excel spreadsheets to keep track of favorable lawmakers and budgets. There were countless email and text message threads planning meetings with lobbyists and lawmakers. And analyzing how they went afterwards.

Enemies came together to form what lobbyist Matt Borges called an unholy union, an unholy alliance.

Borges worked as a lobbyist at the firm Roetzel and Andress. And according to testimony, the firm’s biggest client was First Energy.

Here in a FBI secret recording, Borges describes the team’s working relationship – not one of mutual respect, but one of raw political purpose.

A reminder. 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.

Matt Borges: “So it's this unholy alliance between Larry, First Energy and Roetzel because even though Roetzel doesn't care about Larry.

Tyler Fehrman: Right.

Matt Borges: He's helping with the issue that our single largest client cares a lot about.

Tyler Fehrman: Right.

Matt Borges: And, so unless you're somehow affiliated directly with First Energy, work for one of the interests or just want to suck up to Larry, you're on your side... fuck these people…” (615 Borges unholy alliance - pulled)

Renee Fox: Borges was chair of the state’s Republican Party for four years. But, he was forced out over his support of former Ohio Gov. John Kasich over Donald Trump during the presidential primary race in 2016.

Neil Clark hated Kasich. And Householder was a staunch Trump supporter.

Borges’ attorney Todd Long summed it up at the trial… Borges and Householder –

Voice Actor As Todd Long: They had political rivalries going back years. They weren't personal friends. In fact, they didn't really like each other.

Renee Fox: All we have is the transcript because recording devices were not allowed in the court.

Long defended Borges during the 2023 trial by saying that his client was no insider with First Energy, either.

Voice Actor As Todd Long: Mike Dowling, a First Energy executive, he’s like a vice president, that’s right up there, called Matt Borges a boob. A boob.

Renee Fox: The collaboration did not leave Borges with a sense of camaraderie toward Clark. He described the relationship while the FBI recorded him speaking to an informant.

Matt Borges: Neil who has, who used to write shit about me on his blog all the time… Trying to cut my nuts off for years. Right now, it’s like we’re best friends. The other day we, we go t in this meeting, he goes hey you know who you remind me of, you remind me of Mike Pompeo, I was just watching Pompeo on TV, he is you, he, he’s your mannerisms, he’s the way you talk and then you.

So he starts calling me Pompeo, and I’m like Neil we’re not buddies. Like stop it… He’s a fucking psychopath.

Renee Fox: Despite his dislike for his collaborators, Borges was getting paid. Prosecutors say he took in nearly $400,000 and his company saw more than a million by the time it all came to an end.

Matt Borges: “The only people that are on my side is this fucking company.

Renee Fox: Before the team was ready to focus on First Energy’s legislation they had to make Householder speaker. The speaker of the House sets the legislative agenda and makes committee appointments. It was crucial to their plan and it wasn’t going to be easy.

Kasler Kasler is a longtime political reporter and bureau chief of the Ohio Public Radio Statehouse news Bureau. She said legislators knew what Householder was after when he came back to the House. He was angling for a second stint as Speaker. He first held the position from 2001 to 2004.

Karen Kasler: When he came back the second time, and of course, there's all these stories about the first time how he rose to power and just how really carefully calculated he was in terms of getting to the speaker's job. … he was clearly angling for speaker. And you could tell from the moment he was elected.”

Renee Fox: Householder only had a handful of allies when he took office in 2016. But, he started 2019 with a couple of dozen loyal comrades after spending $2 million on their elections.

Scott Pullins, an attorney of Householder’s, said the candidates they sought had the same type of voting base as Householder and Trump in 2016.

Scott Pullins: People that work, you know, for manufacturing companies or beer companies or whatever they may be members of labor unions. But, you know, they support the Second Amendment. They support lower taxes. They, they tend to be pro-life. You know, they they they they want a strong national defense, but they also don't want us intervening in endless wars.”

Renee Fox: Householder spent time strategizing with Clark on speaker votes while the primary races were still going on the year before. Here, Householder shares his strategy to support candidate Scott Oleslager in the North Canton area.

Householder: So we have been having discussions with Oelslager’s primary opponent about him getting out of the race.

Clark: Mm-hmm.

Householder: He wants to come in, I think it’s Thursday of this week and sit down with me and talk to me about it and I’m sure he’s going to want something to uh, get out. Which I’m fine with doing. But, you know, if I’m going to burn political capital, I want to just make certain that Scott’s going to come out and publicly support me for speaker just as soon as we get past the filing deadline here.”

Renee Fox: The political capital Householder expended appears to have been worth it. Oelslager was elected.

Pullins said the established Republicans were aware of Householder’s plans and tried to stop him.

Scott Pullins: When Larry returned to the house in 2017, Cliff Rosenberger was the speaker and his hand-picked successor was a gentleman from Gallia County named Ryan Smith. You know, those two guys went out and raised money from lobbyists.

Renee Fox: He said they tried to quash his rise to power by funding his opponents.

Scott Pullins: Tried to take out, Larry at ‘16 and then candidates, not only him in ‘18, but also candidates that were aligned with us.

Renee Fox: Pullins said the drama with Rosenberger and Smith started a dark money race.

Rosenberger would have left office at the end of 2018. But the FBI started asking questions about his travel and apparent coziness with the pay-day lending lobby.

News broke in April that year of an early morning FBI raid at Speaker Rosenberger’s home. The investigation never resulted in charges. But, Rosenberger resigned. As planned, Smith succeeded him. But it took 11 rounds of voting. And, the hard-fought victory would be short lived.

At the beginning of 2019, a new House was seated and a new vote for speaker was held. Smith ran to keep the position with support of 34 Republicans. But, Householder found himself surrounded with a lot more friends. His old buddy Scott Oelslager nominated him on the floor of the House.

Scott Oelslager: Mr. Speaker, it's an honor for me to rise to place the name of Larry Householder in nomination for Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Renee Fox: Oelslager praised Householder when he nominated him and, he quoted from a speech Ronald Regan gave during his first inauguration. He called the segment “H eroes.”

Scott Oelslager: Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life. Please join me in supporting Representative Larry Householder for Speaker of the Ohio House. So we as the people's House can work together to improve the lives of all the people of Ohio. Those heroes of Ohio.

Renee Fox: Counting all of the new Republicans Householder brought to the House in January 2019, he still only had 26 backers. The math wasn’t adding up.

But, there was another way to come up with the votes. Karen Kasler with the Statehouse News Bureau.

Karen Kasler: He worked with Democrats because he needed Democratic votes to become speaker.

Renee Fox: Householder was known for his conservative stances – he is pro-gun, anti-abortion and oversaw a ban on same-sex marriage in the state as speaker in 2003. It was an unusual move – at the time – because the majority party typically comes together to agree on a speaker without the minority party.

Householder promised the Democrats he’d keep anti-union right-to-work legislation off the table and be more bipartisan.

The plan worked.

Unidentified Ohio House Member: After receiving a majority of all the votes cast, Larry Householder is hereby declared and elected the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Renee Fox: Seventy percent of the Democrats voted for Householder. Their numbers pushed him over the threshold at the urging of labor-union donors.

Some called it a deal with the devil. The minority leader was against it and resigned a few days after the vote.

Montage Of New Reports: Tonight, Larry Householder is Ohio's new House speaker. Today's vote, though, was full of controversy. Householder needed 50 votes to win the speaker's job. He received 52. Neither the Republican caucus nor the Democrat caucus were united today, each of them splitting their vote for two candidates.It was the minority Democrats who tip the scales for Larry Householder, making up about half of the 52 votes in his favor.

Renee Fox: The minority leader was against it and resigned a few days after the vote. Householders first speech called for a new bipartisan standing subcommittee on energy generation. He also promised to work with the factions of the House that didn't vote for him.

Larry Householder: For those of you that supported me in the Speaker's race, obviously we're going to work together. For those of you that didn't support me in this speaker's race. Well, that means I've got to earn your respect and your trust moving forward.

Renee Fox: The events of the next several months would challenge that claim as Householder and friends pushed HB 6 to the finish line.

In the meantime, team members texted about the latest victory. Householder thanked his benefactors for making it possible.

But, it was back to business.

The team members worked on drafting the legislation. It was quickly introduced after Householder was sworn in, four months later in April.

Once introduced, Team Householder representatives spoke up for it on the floor – like Jamie Callendar here at a July 2019 hearing:

Jamie Callendar: In addition, it will save ratepayers $1.3 billion dollars. I’ll repeat that it will save ratepayers $1.3 billion dollars…

Renee Fox: Here, Dave Griffing with First Enregy Solutions – the subsidiary that owns the nuclear plants -- argued how the bailout was preserving clean energy production. He said if the bill died –

Dave Griffing:Two things will happen. Harmful emissions will go up and thousands of well-paying jobs in Ohio will cease to exist. This doesn’t have to happen…

Renee Fox: While HB 6 supporters made the case for the bill in hearings, the lobbyists worked on the members who weren’t supportive.

Neil Clark described his efforts to get the vote of Republican David Greenspan while talking to the FBI agents he believed were his clients.

Neil Clark: The speaker calls me two weeks ago, ‘you gotta get his vote.’ I know, I said, ‘speaker I know. You didn’t have to call me, I know what I have to do.’ So I call this guy (Greenspan) and he goes ‘I can’t vote for it.’ And I say ‘Dave, you have to vote for it (HB 6) I don’t think you understand, if you don’t do this, the bill is dead.’”

Renee Fox: At the time, Greenspan was sponsoring a bill that would have legalized sports betting in Ohio.

Neil Clark: The bill probably never going to become law, and you want to give a fucking opinion about what you believe in? Nobody cares about that.

Renee Fox: Clark told the undercover FBI agents over the phone that Householder was mad at Greenspan and would hold a grudge.

Neil Clark: The Speaker was really irritated, um, over the weekend, and he, the Speaker’s the type of guy that once he gets, once he gets you in his mind in a negative way you never come out.

Renee Fox: Householder killed Greenspan’s sports betting bill.

Neil Clark: Well, the Speaker calls him and says you aren’t getting any fucking bill. I’m getting it my way or you are not getting anything. I mean he just made it very clear. I’m putting these in other places and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Renee Fox: Householder ally Scott Pullins denies that those dynamics existed.

Scott Pullins: Larry Householder, Neil Clark did a lot of boasting and blowing steam about people. But the facts were that people that didn't vote for H.B. six, there was no punishment. People that didn’t vote for Larry Householder for speaker, there were no punishments. In fact, they were rewarded in order to try to bring the caucus back together as a family.

Renee Fox: But Clark clearly states how Householder wielded his power in a recorded conversation.

Neil Clark: He went up to some of the lobbyists and he said, uh, ‘let me tell you something – ‘if I don’t get what I want, you’ll never have sports betting.

Renee Fox: By the way, that sports betting bill.. it got passed - after Greenspan left office.

HB6 met resistance elsewhere. Clark complained to an undercover FBI agent that Governor Mike DeWine’s office wasn’t more helpful in solidifying support for the bill.

Neil Clark: I have to tell you that on HB6 the Governor took that, about $3,000,000 from FirstEnergy.

Undercover FBI Agent: For what?

Neil Clark: Three million dollars from the utility company for his soft dollar c4.

Undercover FBI Agent: Did he?

Neil Clark: Yeah, and when they needed him, you know what he did?

Undercover FBI Agent: Turned his back.

Neil Clark: Now he wants to come in, now that it’s passed the House, he wants to help in the Senate. And I’m going, fuck you, what are you going to do?

Renee Fox: The team spent more than $20 million on mailers, polls and ads that marketed the bill as a “clean air initiative” to voters. They told them to pressure their local reps and state senators to pass it.

Campaign Ad: The American Petroleum Institute in smoke-filled skies. They're working to stop the Ohio Clean Air program, opposing reform, killing Ohio jobs and sending our money to neighboring states. Why? So they can create a monopoly on energy in Ohio. She passed the American Petroleum Institute. Smokescreen. Clean air and clean energy. Begin with clean government. Ask your representative to support the Ohio.

Renee Fox: The American Petroleum Institute backs the oil and natural gas industry. They donated at least $1 million to the $5-million-dollar effort to stop the bill. Their lobbyist said the bill unfairly benefited one company above its competitors and drained tax payers.

Campaign Ad: And now FirstEnergy Solutions wants you to pay off its Wall Street creditors. That's right. Under House Bill 6, 300 million tax dollars a year would be used to bail out FirstEnergy solutions nuclear plants. All by creating a special tax on your utility bill. Enough is enough. Call your legislators and say no to House Bill 6.

Renee Fox: First Energy subsidiaries across multiple states generate electricity by burning coal, gas and some oil. They also use nuclear power, wind and hydroelectric power.

All these competing interests morphed the bill over time to bring on more “yes” votes. The final version didn’t just funnel money to the First Energy parent company and bailout First Energy Solutions. It stripped away mandates utility companies were told to follow in 2008 that would have scaled up energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy use for power generation. It also created a pipeline of subsidies to coal plants.

Householder said he spun the bill like this.

Larry Householder: When press asks me about this, what I’ve told them, I’ve said, you know who’s, who’s funding House Bill 6? I said simple, it’s Ohio company and wants, wants to stay in Ohio. And it’s Ohio workers that want jobs in Ohio.

Renee Fox: Opponents railed against HB 6.

They said it purported to save jobs, but killed them in the energy efficiency industry and put the state behind in expanding renewable generation.

People who liked the bill said it would save money by avoiding transition costs. Consumer advocates said lower efficiency standards and less investment in renewable energy generation would cost Ohioans more in the long run.

Others argued FirstEnergy should play by the rules of the free market. And the bill gave them an unfair advantage.

Clark was in Nashville visiting with the undercover FBI agents at a speakeasy called House of Cards on the day the vote was held. He said they nearly spent a few thousand dollars to charter a state-owned plane to taxi lawmakers to Columbus for the vote.

Neil Clark: So if there is a floor session, and you're not there, we can actually come and get you. Okay. Well, so they had five people that they needed to come into town today to vote on this is HB 6. So, Larry, went to the governor said, ‘They're not in town. I need highway patrol to go use the plane to pick them up and bring them here.

Renee Fox: The plan was nixed when the press got wind of it.

And the bill scraped by - with one vote. DeWine signed it the same day.

News Report: And tonight, the Ohio Clean Air Act has been signed into law. Supporters say it saves jobs by bailing out two nuclear power plants, But critics say at the cost of lowering Ohio's renewable energy standards.

Renee Fox: Republicans got nine Democrats to help. But some Republicans went against the party leadership and voted “no.” Greenspan included.

Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts organized opposition to HB 6 into a referendum to repeal the bill.

Former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said the team’s reaction to that repeal effort launched the third prong of a criminal enterprise.

David DeVillers: So there's, like, three parts to the to the conspiracy, right? One is to get Larry Householder elected speaker of the House. Two was to get House Bill 6 passed and three is to keep it passed through the ballot initiative to reverse it, right?

Renee Fox: DeVillers said this stage of the saga was the most expensive.

It wasn’t ideal, but the bank still had plenty in the war chest and the team could still fight for the bill.

Householder and Rep. Jay Edwards discussed it at a September 2019 dinner.

Larry Householder: It is so important. It is so important that they’re not successful (HB 6 repeal efforts). Because when the legislature votes on something, it needs to stay law.

Jay Edwards: Yeah, well, and it’s the beginning of your speakership. It sets a bad precedent for the next six years and stuff. We need to make them realize you can’t be fucked with.

Renee Fox: Edwards was known as a close Householder ally – as majority whip during his speakership.

The FBI had started paying attention to Clark long before that dinner at Aubergine we heard in episode one. The first undercover recordings of Clark and Householder on the phone are from late 2017 and early 2018. But this dinner was the first time Clark got Householder and the FBI agents in the same room.

The FBI was working a different corruption case when their interest in Householder was sparked.

David DeVillers: There was some stuff going on in Cincinnati, mostly with city council. And we had some FBI agents that were undercover that were involved in that. And they just kind of stumbled on some stuff that had nothing to do with city council but has something to do with the Householder people.”

Renee Fox: DeVillers started leading the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cincinnati in 2019. He said attorneys were already investigating the case.

David DeVillers: We had an idea, you know, something funky was going on, but we didn't know what.” (DeVillers we had an idea you know something funky - pulled)

Renee Fox: The Cincinnati case and the householder investigation both involved. A retired Cincinnati Bengals turned real estate developer. He wore a wire for the FBI and facilitated the first meeting in Columbus between Clark and the agents. Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts was organizing against HB 6.

They wanted to repeal the law by putting it before voters to make it to the ballot. They needed to collect 266,000 signatures. As the repeal effort started gathering steam.

The FBI found another way to get their listening devices into more rooms. A whistleblower was about to step forward.

We heard from Tyler Firmin in episode one. Is the former central Ohio Republican operative who worked the campaign of two team householder candidates. Matt Burgess was the guy who connected Furman to the team. But later, Furman was offered a position with Ohioans against corporate bailouts. This would put Furman at odds with Burgess and team householder. But Furman didn't think HB six should be law.

Tyler Fehrman: I believed House Bill 6 was very bad legislation. As someone who doesn't believe in government bailing out corporations, as someone who cares about the environment. And it just it was an offensive piece of legislation to me. And when I was presented the opportunity to help manage the repeal effort. I was immediately interested.

Renee Fox: He called Borges to see how’d he react. Would he feel betrayed if he took the job?

Tyler Fehrman: I told him about the opportunity. And his response was, ‘Man, we're going to be on the opposite sides of things. That's just politics. And, you know, there's no you know, it's not going to hurt our relationship. It's just business, and you should do it. This would be a great opportunity for you. You know, this is what you're good at. It's what you know and go for it.’ And so I was excited. I decided to take the opportunity and immediately jumped in on the petitioning effort to repeal the bill

Renee Fox: He had to hire signature collectors, enough to send them across the state to collect enough signatures.

Tyler Fehrman: It was just, it was a massive project.

Renee Fox: The group gathered enough preliminary signatures to get ballot language approved when Fehrman heard from his friend and mentor.

Tyler Fehrman: So we got together and he was like, ‘Hey, how are things going on the campaign? Are you enjoying it?’ Normal things that you'd talk with a friend about even when you're on opposite sides. There was nothing weird. And, you know, I just tell him, ‘Yeah, it's a lot of work. It's going to be kind of crazy, but I'm hopeful. I think we can do this. I've got a good team. And then the conversation turned.

He made no effort to hide what he was asking me. He literally just said, ‘You know what? If you're willing to provide me with information about the campaign that I need, stuff that only you would know, I can make sure that you're very well taken care of, he said.

Renee Fox: Tyler wasn’t interested, but he told Borges he would think it over.

Tyler Fehrman: He's asking me to betray the trust of this team that I'm working to build, folks that are literally giving seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day until this is over, just to try and get the signatures to make it possible for the people of Ohio to vote on whether or not this legislation is something they want. And it just it was so gross.

Renee Fox: Tyler texted him.

Tyler Fehrman: My integrity is not for sale. And if I took you up on this offer, I would not be the same person that you chose to invest energy and and effort into. You know I can't do this.’ And what came next was just shocking to me. He responded with no matter what. Don't ever tell anyone about our conversation. And that's when, you know, I knew it was wrong, but that's when I knew that there was something larger at play.

Renee Fox: Through a friend of a friend, Fehrman got in touch with the FBI.

Blane Wetzel: This is special agent Blane Wetzel.

Renee Fox: He’s the special agent in charge of the investigation.

Tyler Fehrman: I gave him every single detail I possibly could, and at the end of the conversation he said, Tyler, we cannot force you to do anything but if you're willing. Reach back out to Matt. Tell him that you thought about it a little bit more and that you'd like to take him up on his offer. And then we would like to work with you to record some of those conversations and figure out exactly what it is they're looking for.

Renee Fox: So Tyler went along with it. He wore a wire and he recorded his meeting with Borges. He asked how the bribe would work.

Tyler Fehrman: Ok, um how do we do it?

Matt Borges: Um call me asap give me a number. These guys want to know that it's very, very helpful to know where you're at. And I can meet you tomorrow and write you a check.

Tyler Fehrman: Ok

Matt Borges: Do you have an LLC, or to you personally?

Tyler Fehrman: To me personally.

Matt Borges: We’ll do it over a couple of months so you know …

Tyler Fehrman: Ok, is so is it 15 and then and 10 later?

Matt Borges: That’s what I was thinking.

Tyler Fehrman: Ok, perfect, that’d be awesome.

Tyler Fehrman: And that kicked off what would be the most harrowing few months of my life.

Renee Fox: As Borges plied Fehrman for information about how the repeal effort was going, Fehrman recorded their conversations on equipment the FBI gave him.

Tyler Fehrman: The recording device was not, you know, because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I've seen The Sopranos. If I'm wired to my chest, like they're going to find it. Like, what happens?’ They don't use those. They gave me a key fob… key ring, set your keys on the table.’ This will record everything.

Renee Fox: And Borges was afraid Fehrman would turn on him.

Matt Borges: Um, and uh, you know. If I get a call from Randy Ludlow about this, I’m going to blow your house up.

Renee Fox: If that was a bit hard to hear, that's Burgess telling Furman he'd blow up his house if word got out about their arrangement. Randy Ludlow was a political reporter for the Columbus Dispatch at the time. Here, Furman recalls the conversation.

Here, Fehrman recalls the conversation.

Tyler Fehrman: It's nerve-wracking when a close friend and mentor makes an offer like that and then starts acting different and says things like, you know, if you if you mess with us, will blow up your house, or, you know, if you say anything to anyone, this will be bad for us, but it will be much worse for you.

Renee Fox: Borges tried to justify the deal the two had.

Matt Borges: Again, there’s nothing – I could tell whoever I wanted. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing, you know, even unethical about it. Do I want my name associated with something like that or whatever to become public? No. So how would I defend myself? I’d fucking trash you.

Tyler Fehrman: Right.

Renee Fox: Meanwhile, Clark had a unique method to stall signature collection efforts.

David DeVillers: They hired ballot firms to do nothing. So they conflict them and they paid them. I think there's millions of dollars going to these these firms just to do nothing.

Renee Fox: It would be near impossible to stop people from signing petitions to repeal a bill that charges them more on electric bills. But, what if the repeal effort couldn’t get enough people to collect those signatures?

Neil Clark: We have done so much. we have now bought out, uh, eight more signature collection firms so that number is now up to like 25, 26.

Renee Fox: First Energy spent $38 million during this phase of the plan.

David DeVillers: I think most of the money went into killing it, the killing, the ballot initiative. They did some crazy stuff, right?

Renee Fox: Media buys stoked fears that the repeal effort came from a Chinese take over of Ohio’s energy grid. Mailers claimed petition signers would be tracked by the Chinese government. That petition distributors were criminals.

They paid signature gathering firms $10,000 $25,000 $100,000 in exchange for refusing to help the repeal effort. Clark said the average was $60,000 for the 25 firms they bought out.

They hired private investigators to track where the signature collectors were going. They sent people to the same places and asked potential signers not to sign.

Invoices from the PI came in. Bills were $20,000 $70,000, $80,000. Cash from First Energy paid for registration searches on the vehicles of signature collectors, for devices to track their vehicles and for background check reports on the signature collectors.

The repeal effort was offering their signature collectors $25 an hour. So HB 6’s defenders offered them $26 an hour to stop.

Representative Jay Edwards offered to gather up help during that dinner with the crew at Aubergine.

Jay Edwards: You need more bodies for that. You need more bodies for that.

Neil Clark: We’ll take whatever you got.

Renee Fox: And Clark described their advance forward.

Neil Clark: Every day, every day we sent out a crew of 235 people and we survey about 2,600 sites. Every library, this that and the other. And we’d stay there to see if they have people there or they don’t. So then we do a report everyday estimating how many signatures they’ve done.

Renee Fox: They were sure voters would overturn the bill if it made it to the ballot. After all of the money and work Householder, First Energy and their team invested in the plan, they weren’t going to let the repeal effort put an end to the bailout. So, the $40 million investment was deemed worth it.

And, the dirty tricks worked. The repeal effort didn’t get enough signatures in time. HB 6 became law.

Next week on The Power Grab “It’s a setup.”

Investigators were starting to learn more about Householder’s plan. But, the FBI needed to know more, to prove Householder was in on how FirstEnergy’s money should be spent – to prove coordination between the lawmaker and the effort.

They’d lean on the complicated relationship between Householder and Clark. The two had feuded in the past. But, they hitched their horses to the same wagon. Clark thought it was a good long-term strategy.

Neil Clark: “I don’t need the six minutes. I don’t need the six minutes, six hours, uh, six days, six weeks, six months. I need the six years.

Renee Fox: Still, Clark was weary that the feds might be interested.

Undercover FBI Agent: I better leave… I better run.

Neil Clark: This guy is wired (laughter).

Renee Fox: Clark had his suspicions about this group of hotel developers with Southern accents. His gut told him they were FBI, but would he listen?

He grew up with a dad in and out of federal prison and had watched on the periphery as federal scandals broke out in the past. Clark was from a poor Cleveland neighborhood, from a single-parent home. He got beat up on the football field and was told he wasn’t smart enough to succeed. But he rose to be a major player in Columbus and helped shape Ohio politics into what it is today. Clark made his reputation by being ruthless, by doing whatever it took to win.

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 De Bonis. Audio engineering by Dalton Jones.

Additional voice work from Kevin Petrilla and Rob Walker.

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We’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.