TO: Ohio Reporters, Editors, And Editorial Boards
FROM: Michael McGovern, ProgressOhio
DATE: September 2, 2020
RE: Ohio GOP’s Corruption – 20 Years of The Same Story
Few close observers of Ohio politics were surprised when news broke of the corruption scandal involving Larry Householder and House Bill 6. It was clear even last fall that passing this bailout was no ordinary process.
As the details of the scandal emerged, the scale was shocking. But if we look at the story and characters, it was by no means unique. Over the last two decades, the basic arc has stayed the same: powerful Republican politicians enriching themselves with the rest of us footing the bill.
What we are seeing isn’t new: the last twenty years of Ohio politics have been defined by Republican corruption scandals. Corruption by the Ohio GOP is not a bug — it’s a feature.
As a result, each year, new small scale abuses surface, and every few years, a breath-takingly large-scale abuse of power is uncovered. And the same players – GOP politicians, lobbyists, donors, and staffers – often seem to reemerge in new roles as each new scandal plays out. Yet all too often, few of these powerful individuals are truly held accountable as everyday Ohioans lose out above all else. The storyline of each scandal is surprisingly consistent:
The Four Pillars of GOP Corruption:
- A revolving cast of ethically-challenged characters – The same collection of lobbyists, donors, and staffers, and politicians appear over and over again in Ohio Republican plot lines. Neil Clark, Larry Householder, Matt Borges – all of them have had corrupt dealings in the past.
- An endgame of leveraging the government for private gain – Few in the Ohio GOP see government as a partner to advance the common good. But many see it as a vehicle to help private interests, including their own.
- A willingness to bypass accepted norms – The Ohio GOP willingly bypasses political norms and checks and balances in pursuit of its endgame. Each new scandal brings with it a new escalation in accepted tactics.
- Lack of accountability when they get caught – Few of the influential Republicans involved in these scandals have faced real consequences. Five weeks after being accused of orchestrating a massive bribery scandal, Larry Householder was on the House floor with the same GOP members he helped elect with dirty money.
When taken in its totality, the scope of the GOP’s culture of corruption and pay-to-play politics over the last two decades is stunning:
- Householder, Part 1 (2001-2004): Larry Householder’s first term as speaker, which began in 2001, was defined by essentially the same scandal we see today: shaking down donors and special interests to build his own power. The FBI investigated Householder and several of his advisors for alleged money laundering and campaign finance violations. Those “Team Householder” consultants have remained highly influential in Ohio politics. One of them, Brett Buerck is the head of a major GOP consulting firm (Majority Strategies) that continues to do work for Gov. Mike DeWine, Alice DeWine, Sen. Rob Portman, and the Ohio Republican Party.
- Borges and Deters (2004): In 2004, Matt Borges, who was indicted during the current scandal, pleaded guilty to carrying out a pay-to play-scheme in the office of state Auditor Joe Deters (the current Hamilton County prosecutor). He would go on to be a top advisor for Dave Yost and John Kasich and, eventually, Ohio Republican Party chairman.
- Coingate (1998-2005): In 2005, the Toledo Blade broke the story that beginning in 1998, the Ohio Bureau of Worker Compensation had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in funds run by Ohio Republican donors. Tom Noe, former Lucas County Republican Party Chair, close friend of Gov. Bob Taft, and major GOP donor, was allowed to invest $50 million in rare coins, much of which he stole. Simultaneously, he was running an illegal scheme to funnel money into GOP campaigns.
- Gov. Taft Conviction (2005): In 2005, GOP Gov. Bob Taft became our state’s first – and only – governor to be convicted of a crime after pleading no contest to four ethics violations that carried maximum sentences of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine each. Taft admitted to failing to report thousands of dollars in gifts from influential Republican lobbyists and donors. One of those lobbyists was Curt Steiner, who was a spokesman in 2019 for Generation Now – Householder’s corrupt dark money group.
- Mandel and Suarez (2011-2012): Major GOP donor Ben Suarez was accused of illegally funnelling $200,000 to the campaigns of Josh Mandel and Jim Renacci in 2011 and 2012. He was convicted of obstruction of justice and tampering with a witness. After Suarez raised huge sums for Mandel’s campaign against Sherrod Brown, one of Mandel’s campaign staffers wrote two letters on the state treasurer’s official letterhead aimed at helping Suarez’s company with legal issues in California. One legal expert said at the time, “Certainly ordinary people would look at that and say it stinks.”
- ECOT (2000-2018): Over the course of nearly twenty years, the for-profit Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) charter school took in hundreds of millions of dollars in voucher money, in part by dramatically inflating the number of students attending. Despite strong evidence that the school was falsifying attendance data, GOP Auditors Mary Taylor and Dave Yost actually gave the school accounting awards. Yost and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted spoke at ECOT graduations and Husted received an honorary degree. Auditor Keith Faber watered down oversight legislation as a state Senator.
In 2018, it finally became public that the entire operation was a massive ponzi scheme. Yet no criminal charges have been filed and Yost, now the Attorney General, keeps delaying his lawsuit to get the money back. Neil Clark, who was indicted in the latest scandal, was also the lobbyist and spokesman for ECOT. The defunct blog Third Rail Politics was ECOT’s loudest booster, while also strongly supporting Householder.
- Cliff Rosenberger (2015-2018): In 2018, GOP Speaker Cliff Rosenberger was forced to resign after the FBI began investigating him for bribery and extortion linked to the payday lending industry. Virginia Ragan, the GOP mega donor who was to Rosenberger what FirstEnergy was to Householder (as well as Rosenberger’s landlord), still has an important role on the Public Utility Commission of Ohio (PUCO), which oversees companies like FirstEnergy.
- Householder, Part 2 (2017-2020): Once again in power, Householder found a new way to carry out his pay-to-play politics: dark money groups. He and his GOP allies took in more than $60 million in bribes in exchange for giving FirstEnergy a billion dollar bailout, paid for by every family and business in Ohio. The payday lending industry, which brought down Rosenberger, was also involved. The DeWine administration and the Trump campaign are full of people linked to FirstEnergy and this scheme.
This GOP pattern is impossible to ignore. This GOP corruption is clearly systemic – it defines their very approach to politics.
To be sure, some Democrats have had ethical challenges as well, but as in the cases of Marc Dann or Tamaya Dennard, Democrats forced them to resign. Yet Householder is still a member of the state House of Representatives, allowed to hold court on the House floor with impunity.
It is clear that the entire Ohio GOP is built on this kind of pay-to-play politics. The people and money involved extend far beyond Householder and FirstEnergy. Even GOP elected officials accused of no wrongdoing are complicit in this culture of corruption. The same special interests that brought down Rosenberger and Householder are major funders of Gov. DeWine, the ORP, Supreme Court Justices French and Kennedy and every other Republican politician in Ohio. All of their power is based in quid pro quo politics. It’s rotten to its core.
In the era of Trump, it’s easy to become numb to norm breaking, desensitized to special interest favors, and immune to outrage when so many abuses happen every day. But we ask that in your ongoing coverage of this Householder scandal, you will view this in light of the last twenty years of GOP corruption, rather than just an individual scandal. Any elected official who took money from these tainted special interests owes us an explanation.
This is the story of the last two decades of Ohio politics. The Householder scandal is just the cherry on top of twenty years of corruption. Shame on us if we fail to hold them accountable.