Recordings in corruption trial: Borges paid man $15K while asking him to spy

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal.

CINCINNATI — In 2019, former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges repeatedly insisted that he wasn’t paying a man to spy on the effort to repeal a corrupt utility bailout, but recordings played in court Monday show that Borges paid the man $15,000 while pressing him for inside information on the repeal campaign.

The federal racketeering trial of Borges and former House Speaker Larry Householder entered its fifth week with testimony from Tyler Fehrman, who was the last prosecution witness. Prosecutors rested their case Monday and U.S. District Judge Timothy Black denied defense motions to acquit Borges and Householder.

Borges and Householder are accused of facilitating a scheme in which Akron-based FirstEnergy paid $61 million to make Householder speaker. After he won the post, Householder then passed and worked to protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout. Borges worked as a lobbyist who supported the bailout effort.

He and Fehrman had worked together in the past, but they found themselves on ostensibly opposite sides of the bailout law, House Bill 6.

After Gov. Mike DeWine signed the law in July 2019, Fehrman was a manager for a company hired to gather signatures to put a repeal on the ballot. Meanwhile, Borges was assigned to use his influence with Attorney General Dave Yost and other elected officials to try to delay the petition campaign or even kill it altogether.

In secretly recorded conversations, both men acknowledged that Ohio voters hated the bailout law and agreed that if a repeal made it onto the ballot, HB 6 would surely go down in flames.

“If it makes the ballot, we’re dead,” Borges said in one conversation.

“People hate the bill,” Fehrman replied.

In other recordings, Borges repeatedly pressed Fehrman about how many people were collecting signatures for the company he was working for, Advanced Micro Targeting. Borges also wanted to know where the circulators were working and how many signatures they had collected.

Earlier in the trial, company CEO Michael Roberson testified that such information would be extremely valuable to the effort to protect the bailout.

In other testimony, witnesses described a harried 54-day effort to gather 260,000 valid signatures while FirstEnergy provided tens of millions in dark money to finance misleading, xenophobic ads meant to undermine the repeal effort. The money also paid for “blockers” — people who harassed and even assaulted petition circulators, Fehrman and Roberson testified.

Fehrman said that during a meeting on Sept. 2, 2019, Borges quizzed him on the state of his finances, asking if he owed money on his car, and whether he had credit card debt. In other testimony, Fehrman said he was indebted because of a divorce and that Borges knew about that.

But Fehrman said it bothered him that Borges would bring up his finances as the two were working on opposite sides of the repeal campaign.

He left the meeting “feeling very upset, shaken,” Fehrman said. “I’ve never been in a situation in my career where I was asked to do something absolutely wrong.”

Fehrman said that he came to believe that Borges was dangling money in exchange for secret information about the repeal effort and he contacted federal officials. Then the FBI recorded a series of phone calls and meetings between Fehrman and Borges before the petition campaign failed in late October of 2019.

In them, Borges repeatedly pressed for information about the petition campaign, saying things like:

  • “I would love to know what the statewide number (of signatures) is.”
  • “We hear you guys are bringing in a bunch of people from out of state. Is that true?”
  • “We were told (circulators so far had) 80,000 (signatures) today. Is that true?”
  • “We want to know locations (where circulators are) in advance. We’re going to follow people around.”

In the midst of those conversations, Fehrman asked Borges for payment, saying in a text message, “Did you bring what we discussed yesterday?”

To which Borges replied, “We need to take a different approach. I want to hire you for a different project.”

Borges ended up giving Fehrman a check for $15,000, which Fehrman deposited in his bank account so that Borges could see that it cleared the bank. Fehrman then wrote a check for $15,000 to the U.S. Marshals Service, he testified Monday.

When Fehrman told Borges he was worried that a journalist or a lawyer might ask him about his arrangement with Borges, Borges told him to say the money Fehrman received was unrelated to the information he was providing.

“Just say no, because you weren’t,” according to a recording played Monday. “That’s not the understanding we came to.”

He reiterated, “We specifically said there’s no connection between what’s going on with (a dark money group FirstEnergy paid into and Householder controlled) and what’s going on here.”

Some other Borges statements played in court Monday might also be problematic for him — especially in light of something Judge Black said as he denied the defendants’ motions to direct a verdict acquitting their clients. Black said prosecutors had put on “evidence of concealment.”

Several of Borges’ statements to Fehrman might fit in that category:

  • “No matter what, don’t ever tell anyone about our conversation earlier.”
  • If news of Borges’ dealings with Fehrman became public “it will be bad for us and worse for you.”
  • “You’re not trying to set me up, are you?”
  • “I’m going to blow your house up.”

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