Editorial Roundup: Ohio

Cleveland Plain Dealer. March 12, 2023.

Editorial: Householder: Broken Government - an editorial series on Ohio’s dark-money, campaign, lobbying, ethics and pay-to-play loopholes

A jury on Thursday found former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and former Republican State Chair Matt Borges guilty for their parts in a far-reaching, corrupt scheme to pass House Bill 6. The Statehouse scandal is said to be the biggest in the 220 years that Ohio has been a state. Householder and Borges each face up to 20 years in prison.

HB 6, passed in 2019, sought to make Ohio ratepayers fork over more than $1 billion to bail out two nuclear power plants -- one in Lake County -- then owned by a subsidiary of Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. The nuclear bailout, along with other lucrative HB 6 provisions, was repealed about nine months after FBI agents arrested Householder, Borges and three other alleged co-conspirators in 2020. Shamefully, other parts of HB 6 remain, including coal subsidies and a rollback of renewable energy standards.

Specifics of the case -- the result of a federal investigation, months of preparation that saw two Statehouse figures plead guilty and agree to testify, sweeping admissions by FirstEnergy in a deferred prosecution agreement and then a nearly two-month trial -- will draw copious comment.

But it also teaches this: Ohio’s campaign-finance, government-ethics, lobbying and financial-disclosure laws are pathetically weak. And “dark money” shields powerful special interests and their lobbyists from virtually any accountability. That has to change.

Which is why, with this editorial, the editorial board of The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com launches “Householder: Broken Government,” an editorial series to explore in detail how Ohio became a poster child for Statehouse corruption, and what needs to change to fix that.

The series will examine the numerous oversight and disclosure loopholes that allowed Householder, as a jury just found, to direct a far-reaching scheme of corruption and personal enrichment bound up in the fortunes of just one bill -- 2019′s HB 6. The bill offered pay-to-play opportunities for one of Ohio’s deepest-pocketed lobbies, electric utilities.

In HB 6, electric companies -- largely, but not only FirstEnergy, a utility whose tentacles, octopus-like, reached into every nook of the Statehouse. -- saw an opportunity to launder money through a 501(c)(4) dark-money group to pad their bottom lines with favorable legislative treatment and subsidies, some of which persist.

In mid-2021, FirstEnergy signed a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department specifying that the utility, in so many words, had used dark money and bribes to help elect Householder as the 2019 Ohio House speaker and then induce the passage six months later of House Bill 6 -- which Gov. Mike DeWine quickly signed. As part of the deal, FirstEnergy paid a $230 million penalty to the federal government.

Besides highlighting Ohio’s rickety, loophole-riddled campaign-finance, personal-ethics and lobbying laws, this sordid tale’s central problem, which the General Assembly must confront, is disclosure: Who’s doing what for whom, and for how much, in the Statehouse and in campaigns? What are the facts about an Ohio candidate’s or officeholder’s personal finances? What can Ohio lawmakers do to force open donor secrecy in 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations like Generation Now, the dark-money group indicted in the Householder case that was used as a pass-through for bribes?

Meanwhile, Ohio doesn’t require lobbyists to disclose the fees clients pay. At one time, FirstEnergy had as many as 20 lobbyists swarming the Statehouse -- one for every seven members of the legislature. How much were those lobbyists paid? Ohio doesn’t ask. Some other states do.

And while Ohio, also like many states, forbids contingency fees for lobbying (that is, bonuses for passing a specific law), that’s unenforceable given Ohio’s masking of lobbyists’ fees.

Ohio’s toothless ethics laws also need a redo. During the trial, Householder’s lawyers said the more than $400,000 Householder got from former aide Jeff Longstreth was a loan. But if so, cleveland.com’s Andrew J. Tobias found, it wasn’t disclosed on state forms that require listing debts of $1,000 or more, although Householder did disclose a gift -- of an unspecified amount -- from Longstreth in 2019 and again in 2020.

Even if the laws had teeth, the state’s ethics enforcement apparatus is negligible. For instance, “approximately 18,700 elected officials and 590,000 public employees fall under (the) authority” of the Ohio Ethics Commission, according to budget analysts, who report the commission has a staff of 19.

Thursday’s verdicts are a salutary lesson on why such indifference needs to change. Over the next weeks and months, the Householder: Broken Government editorial series will seek to put down some clear markers for how that can be done.


Columbus Dispatch. March 6, 2023.

Editorial: Ohio State’s next president must serve Ohioans not will of powerful or political

As part of a recent Columbus Metropolitan Club panel discussion about the transformative Intel plants planned for the region, Heath-Newark-Licking County Port Authority CEO and President Rick Platt urged Ohioans “to get used to growth.”

“We can grow our economy,” he told the crowd. “That doesn’t mean that we’re all fighting for some shrinking piece. We’re all fighting for a bigger piece of the pie.”

Growing the skills of citizens who can seize the jobs of the near future and beyond, and who can also think critically, and actively participate in our democracy is an integral part of growing the state’s economy.

Ohio State University, the scarlet and grey land grant institution established more than 150 years ago to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics training so members of the working class could obtain a “liberal, practical education,” is key to growth of both our economy and citizenry.

— This is why all Ohioans have skin in the game when it comes to who is chosen as the university’s 17th president.

— The person selected to replace outgoing Ohio State University President Kristina Johnson must work in the interest of the state’s economic needs, but their vision must align with the university’s stated mission:

— Creating and discovering knowledge to improve the well-being of our local, state, regional, national and global communities

— Educating students through a comprehensive array of distinguished academic programs Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens Fostering a culture of engagement and service

“We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential components of our excellence,” a portion of the university’s Vision, Mission, Values reads.

There has been considerable discussion about a power struggle between Johnson and businessman and philanthropist Les Wexner, but the reasons for her resignation after fewer than two years in office remain murky and officially unconfirmed.

In light of the mystery surrounding Johnson’s departure and attacks on so-called “wokeness” in learning from lawmakers here and around the nation, the faculty, staff, alumni and other Ohio State observers we spoke to on and off the record raised concerns.

There are real fears about the potential erosion of academic freedom, the scaling back of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and the politicalization of the OSU president’s role.

Any of those regressions — DEI and academic freedom among the things Johnson touted — would work against the state’s economic and educational interest.

Upholding Ohio State’s principles

There is no timeline for the trustees to select Ohio State’s next president, but the trustee-comprised Presidential Selection Subcommittee is expected to soon share how the greater campus community can participate in the process.

“Our dedication to advancing Ohio State’s standing as one of the nation’s premier public universities remains unchanged — as does our commitment to being a leader in affordability and student support, faculty retention and hiring, innovative research and excellence in patient care,” said Hiroyuki Fujita, chair of the Ohio State Trustee board.

OSU Associate English Professor Pranav Jani, president of the Ohio State University Association of University Professors, says the Ohio State community deserves answers about Johnson and true involvement in choosing the next president.

“I would like to see transparency about what happened in the fall leading up to (Johnson’s resignation) and the secrecy, and a clear selection process that includes students, faculty and the academics, and university community,” Jani, the university’s director of Asian American studies, told our board. “We want to make sure this is not a political appointment that would roll back the efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Including marginalized Ohio

When it comes to reaching historically marginalized communities, Ohio State’s record has long had much room for improvement.

According to estimates from the U.S. Census, 13.2% of Ohioans identify as Black or African American alone, 2.7% identify as Asian, 4.3% as Hispanic or Latino and 2.6% as two or more races.

Ohio State’s 2021-2022 minority enrollment was 25.1%, including 7.7% African Americans, 7.7% Asian Americans, 5.4 % Hispanics and 4.1% people who identify as being of two or more races.

At the start of spring semester, Ohio State had 16,277 minority students — 4,755 African Americans, 5,292 Asian Americans, 3,467 Hispanic Americans and 2,807 of two or more races included — out of a 62,523 total student population.

There are 5,512 international students currently enrolled. A total 57,909 people attend classes on the Columbus campus.

Ohio State African American and African studies Professor Judson L. Jeffries, a regular opinion contributor to the Columbus Dispatch, worries that forward-thinking and diversity-minded candidates will be turned off by the controversy surrounding Johnson.

“Given the circumstances under which Dr. Johnson resigned I’m not sure why anyone would find this job appealing,” he told our board. “However, because academia is replete with careerists and opportunists, administrators will be lined up to interview for this job.”

The future of academic freedom

Educators around the nation have been targeted by those on the far right who have complained about DEI training, sexual orientation and gender studies, historical truths and critical race theory - a more than 40-year-old academic concept that “examines if, and how, systems and policies perpetuate racism.”

Most of the proposed bans introduced at Ohio’s Statehouse focused on K-12 education and public institutions like libraries, but legislatures in other states have set their sights on higher education as well.

— Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to ban colleges and universities from spending money, regardless of its source, because of support for initiatives related to critical race theory, diversity, equity and inclusion or “other discriminatory initiatives” was announced earlier this year.

— On the heels of backlash from Republican state lawmakers, the University of Texas System’s eight academic institutions recently paused new diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Jani says Ohioans should take note.

“There is a clear and open attack on the academic community happening around the country and I hope the OSU presidency is not being swayed by political interest but is in tune with the work,” he said.

There is reason to wonder and read between the lines.

In a recent guest column about her decision to leave Ohio State, Johnson, an electrical engineer by trade with a strong background in business and academia, reflected on how her agenda was no longer in step with what the board wanted, discussed her efforts to help secure Intel and discussed her work to protect professors’ right to teach.

“I have fought for academic freedom and to protect the university’s right to decide which professors to hire. University curricula must not be subject to political forces,” she wrote. “Ohio State professors must be allowed to pursue academic research without fear or favor, and ideas must succeed or fail based on academic merit rather than their political appeal.”

Ohio State English Associate Professor Jill Galvan, a member of the Ohio State University Senate, says the university’s next president must maintain the OSU principles including reaching diverse groups.

The aims must be to train civic-minded critical thinkers no matter the discipline they pursue, she said.

“We are public servants,” Galvan said. “We can’t lose sight of producing well-rounded citizens who are well-rounded thinkers.”

Ohio State’s trustees have their work cut out for them. They must operate in the light, ensuring the integrity of the president’s position is maintained.

The person they select as president must be willing to put the good of the campus community and Ohio above political will of a few powerful players.

This is far more important than any wins Ohio State’s football team racks up.

Ohio State is more than a university. It sets the pace for education in the state. Ohio State University is where Ohioans grow.


Toledo Blade. March 11, 2023.

Editorial: Victim is Ohio

The stain upon Ohio government created by the conduct of Larry Householder and Matt Borges will not be soon or easily erased.

The scheme that victimized all Ohioans and made an untold number of Ohio government officials knowing or accidental participants in a massive fraud deserves a punishment that will deter future corruption at this scale.

A step in that direction can be taken by Judge Timothy Black, who will sentence the two for racketeering activity including wire fraud, bribery, and money laundering, following their convictions Thursday in federal court in Cincinnati.

The United States Sentencing Commission reports a 23-month prison sentence as the average for 156 bribery convictions in 2021.

The crime that was meticulously investigated and prosecuted is far from the “average” bribery case. Former Councilman Bob McCloskey took $5,000 in bribes in an FBI sting — well below the median bribe of $52,328 in 2021. In 2006, he received a sentence of 27 months and served 20.

The sentencing guidelines allow a judge to escalate a sentence based on the impact on victims.

All Ohio citizens are victims of this tragedy. The goal of this crime was to raise $1.3 billion from ratepayers and transfer that money to FirstEnergy. That’s a lot more than the harm done by McCloskey.

Also to be taken into account is the harm done to Ohioans’ faith in their government.

The federal criminal code allows a 20-year maximum sentence for racketeering. The penalty should be commensurate with the level of damage done.

There are precedents for sentences well beyond the average.

● Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron, was sentenced in 2006 to 24 years in prison for selling $60 million worth of shares based on insider knowledge.

●James Traficant, former Eastern Ohio congressman, was sentenced to seven years for bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion.

● Former FBI agent Babak Broumand of Los Angeles in 2016 got six years in federal prison for conspiring to accept at least $150,000 in cash bribes and other items of value.

●Fred Buenrostro, the former CEO of the California Public Employee Retirement System, was sentenced to four and a half years for conspiracy to trade official acts for some $250,000 in cash and benefits — much less than the $514,000 Householder took and the $366,000 that Borges took. And that excludes the rest of the $61 million that was spread around as campaign contributions and who knows what other expenditures, or the $1.3 billion impact on Ohio electrical ratepayers.

Factors that increase a sentence include being a public official, involving a high-level elected official, and abusing a public position of trust.

The Blade Editorial Board believes Householder and Borges should serve a stiff sentence that expresses the magnitude of the crime, if that takes every day of the 20-year maximum.

The “nothingburger” case as framed by former Ohio House Speaker Householder’s attorneys portrayed this $61 million bribery scheme as “politics as usual” at the Statehouse. Sadly politics as practiced at the Ohio Statehouse has been correctly judged by a federal trial jury as criminal racketeering.

Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Borges were both found guilty for their roles in a conspiracy to trade $61 million in campaign contributions from FirstEnergy for the bailout of two financially failing nuclear power plants.

Federal prosecutors Emily Glatfelter, Megan Gaffney Painter, and Mathew Singer, and FBI Agent Blane Wetzel presented an intricate case in painstaking detail. The government showed how the social welfare political nonprofit Generation Now was created at the direction of Householder to convert FirstEnergy cash to campaign funds for Ohio House candidates loyal to Householder.

Once those Householder loyalists voted to make him speaker, Householder went to work on the FirstEnergy bailout. When the controversial legislation that forced residents and businesses throughout Ohio to pay higher utility rates was threatened with repeal by voter referendum, Borges joined the conspiracy to derail that option.

Prosecutors documented that all of the FirstEnergy conspirators dipped into the Generation Now political money for personal use. Judge Black instructed jurors that it was a bribe to take money for political action, even if the bribe-taker agreed with the policy.

Jurors were not told of FirstEnergy’s admission of bribes paid to Householder and former PUCO Chairman Sam Randazzo, who has not been charged. FirstEnergy paid a $230 million fine for its role in the conspiracy. Executives who authorized the payments are not protected against prosecution by the FirstEnergy deferred prosecution agreement.

The Householder-Borges defense was built upon the premise that a bribery case without the alleged bribe payers was evidence of prosecutorial overreach. It’s imperative that the Justice Department not make Householder and Borges martyrs by ignoring the other side of the criminal conspiracy. Without the rest of the conspirators this will be cast in Columbus as a political hit job.

Historically Ohio has not been blemished by blatant political corruption associated with some other states. With the federal convictions Ohio has entered a new era.

The toughest possible sentences will hold Householder and Borges accountable for conduct that victimized all of Ohio to enrich themselves.


Youngtown Vindicator. March 9, 2023.

Editorial: Proposed new rail regulations common sense

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati, are cosponsors of an important piece of legislation that would impose both new regulations for the railroad industry and financial consequences for breaking them. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 may have been inspired by a disaster in East Palestine, but the changes could help keep people across the country safer.

Among the necessary changes included in the act are requirements that all rail carriers with trains carrying hazardous materials — even those that do not fall under existing regulations for high-hazard flammable shipments — must create emergency response plans and provide information and advance notification to the emergency response commissions of each state through which a train will pass.

The bill also would set train crews at a two-person minimum, and require the U.S. Department of Transportation to take another look at rules on train size and weight. And it would set a requirement for installing, maintaining and placing devices that detect overheated bearings and other mechanical problems, and mandate that they be scanned every 10 miles.

Under the proposed act, the Federal Railroad Administration would be required under the bill to update inspection regulations to assure rail cars carrying hazardous materials receive regular checks by trained mechanical experts.

It sounds like a lot of “why weren’t we already doing this?” doesn’t it?

And the danger exists that industry lobbyists will again bend lawmakers’ ears (or fatten their wallets) to a degree the legislation will not survive. But we must hope lessons have been learned as East Palestine continues to recover; and that members of Congress understand they will be held accountable should they fail to do the right thing.


Elyria Chronicle Telegram. March 9, 2023.

Editorial: LaRose’s strategy takes shape

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose seems very concerned about certain election results.

Specifically, the Republican is interested in the results of Ohio’s 2024 race for U.S. Senate, which he is widely expected to enter.

For LaRose to make it to the general election and challenge U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, he needs to win what will likely be a crowded and brutal GOP primary.

Thus far the only Republican to enter the race is state Sen. Matt Dolan, who finished third in the 2022 GOP primary won by now-U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati.

Dolan distinguished himself during that race as the only GOP candidate flatly to reject former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

LaRose chose a slightly different route in his reelection bid last year.

With Trump’s endorsement, he fended off an election-denying primary opponent and then cruised to victory in November. Although LaRose acknowledged that Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020 and defended the sanctity of Ohio’s elections, he also cast aspersions on other states’ electoral processes.

LaRose managed to stay on the dry side of the election-denying swamp last year, but he’s edging dangerously close to the waterline these days.

At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, LaRose bought a table at a dinner featuring failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. The Republican has denied she lost last year, all evidence to the contrary.

LaRose also appeared on a CPAC panel with the unfortunate title of “They Stole It From Us Legally.” He was joined on stage by several Republicans who have denied the reality of election outcomes they didn’t like.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that the panel originally was supposed to have been called “Easy to Vote, Hard to Cheat.” That’s a phrase LaRose loves to deploy when discussing how elections work in Ohio.

Unfortunately, LaRose has been working to make it harder to vote.

He cheered the Ohio General Assembly when it passed a law featuring new voting restrictions in the lame-duck session last year. The law limited acceptable forms of identification at the polls, largely banned curbside voting and reduced the time span within which mail-in ballots must arrive at elections boards from 10 days after Election Day to four days.

As a member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, LaRose voted in favor of gerrymandered maps for congressional and state legislative districts that the Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly ruled unconstitutional.

He’s pushed for a constitutional amendment that would increase the threshold for passage of future constitutional amendments to 60% of voters from a simple majority.

LaRose is mulling pulling Ohio out of the Electronic Registration Information Center, better known as ERIC. It’s a bipartisan organization that was created to allow states to share election data to detect voters who have died or moved to a different state.

Earlier this year, LaRose praised the system, calling it “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have.” No longer.

Several other Republican states have already pulled out of the compact because of right-wing conspiracy theories. LaRose, ever eager to remain on Trump’s good side, has demanded that ERIC bend to conservative demands or Ohio will leave.

What’s driving LaRose in all of this?

He knows that a good chunk of the GOP base buys into the fiction of rampant voter fraud. He watched as Vance won his primary in large part on the strength of Trump’s endorsement. In order to get that endorsement, Vance had to embrace Trump’s stolen election falsehoods.

Vance was an outlier. As LaRose is no doubt aware, numerous candidates backed by Trump won their primaries last year only to lose in the general election in part because of their embrace of election-fraud conspiracy theories.

LaRose’s plan is as obvious as it is cynical: Appeal just enough to the election-denying wing of his party to make it through the primary without going so overboard that he turns off voters who don’t buy into such nonsense when the general election rolls around.

It just might work.