Ohio lawmakers debate removal of indicted former speaker

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Jun. 10—COLUMBUS — Republicans and Democrats alike on Thursday argued that the continued presence of former Speaker Larry Householder on the Ohio House of Representatives floor nearly a year after his indictment in a $61 million bribery scheme erodes the chamber's integrity.

"Nobody can understand how he's still here," said state Rep. Brian Stewart (R., Ashville), a sponsor of a resolution seeking his fellow Republican's ouster. "I think the reputation of this institution should be important enough to say we are not going to tolerate this."

The chamber took the speaker's gavel away from Mr. Householder (R., Glenford) soon after his arrest last July in a scandal related to passage of a $1 billion bailout of two nuclear power plants along Lake Erie.

But he remains an elected member of the body, representing the largely rural, strongly Republican 72nd District east of Columbus.

"He holds office because the people elected him for a two-year term with full knowledge of all of these allegations, which are indeed quite sordid, against him," said state Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), a member of the House Rules and Reference Committee.

The committee is considering two similar expulsion resolutions separately pushed by Republicans and Democrats.

Initially unopposed, the formidable candidate went on to win re-election to a third two-year term to his House seat in November against last-minute write-in entries.

"Rep. Householder was the only name on the ballot for anybody who walked in to vote, because he was indicted after the filing deadline," Mr. Stewart said. "We don't give a whole lot of credence to write-in candidates."

Mr. Householder faces a federal racketeering charge that could carry 20 years in prison. He is accused of engineering a scheme with multiple players to launder cash from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and related entities through a nonprofit corporation.

The money was used to help elect legislators loyal to him in 2018, help elect him House speaker in 2019, and then get House Bill 6, the nuclear bailout law, across the finish line.

The scheme — for which two individuals and the corporation have already pleaded guilty — then continued to kill a petition effort to ask voters to repeal the new law. Mr. Householder allegedly benefited personally from the scheme to the tune of $400,000.

The former speaker has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. He has no leadership position or committee post, but he continues to vote on bills, can introduce them, and draws the nearly $66,000 annual salary for rank-and-file members. He was on the floor as usual on Thursday.

Under the Ohio Constitution, the full House sits in judgment of its members' qualifications and could expel someone for "disorderly conduct," a term not defined in the document. It would take 66 of the chamber's 99 members to do so.

"We certainly believe that selling legislation amounts to disorderly conduct," Mr. Stewart said.

While there is suggestion the charges against Mr. Householder are "another witch hunt," he said, they "were not brought by Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler," referring to Congressional Democrats who prosecuted former President Trump's second impeachment trial.

"These were brought by President Donald Trump's hand-picked U.S. attorney," Mr. Stewart said. "... This is not a witch hunt. This is not Russia-gate. This is not cancel culture. This is law enforcement."

Mr. Seitz, who has served in leadership under Mr. Householder and current Speaker Bob Cupp (R., Lima), suggested lawmakers should look to the definition of "disorderly conduct" as the General Assembly defined it in criminal law. That term generally refers to fisticuffs or some other threatening, violent, or abusive behavior.

The last time the House removed a sitting member who had not been convicted of a felony was prior to the Civil War, and that involved someone who engaged in fisticuffs on the chamber's floor.

As evidenced by Thursday's questioning, Mr. Householder's 63 colleagues in the GOP caucus are not unified on his fate. Despite overwhelming support from Democrats, Mr. Cupp has been reluctant to pull the trigger without agreement in his caucus. He offered no prediction Thursday as to what will happen with these two resolutions.

The committee has invited Mr. Householder to appear personally before it or offer a written statement on Tuesday. Mr. Cupp said he has not received a response.

Democrats argued the chamber should not wait for a court verdict to issue its own.

"Members here should be embarrassed that it has taken this long to bring the question of Rep. Householder's professional misconduct up for discussion here," state Rep. Jeffrey Crossman (D., Parma) said.

First Published June 10, 2021, 2:27pm

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