Bribery charges against Ohio's House speaker threaten to sink GOP in November


The alleged $60 million bribery scheme could cause political fallout for Republicans in Ohio.

The arrest of Ohio's House speaker on federal bribery charges has suddenly thrown a shadow over not just his political future, but that of his party, in a state where Republicans have been preparing to solidify control.

Federal prosecutors say Republican Speaker Larry Householder and four others — including a former state GOP chairman — perpetrated a $60 million federal bribery scheme connected to a taxpayer-funded bailout of Ohio's two nuclear power plants. How many others got caught up in the sweeping probe is yet to be known.

The scope of the accusations threatens to unfurl the GOP's tight hold on Ohio's governing body, which is set to draw new congressional maps in 2021 that will dictate Ohio's representation in Washington for a decade, a variable that's put winning at least some seats on Democrats' national radar.

The scandal's potential political fallout for Republicans was evidenced by the swift rebukes of Householder by politicians and party leaders alike.

Practically before he'd left the federal courthouse Tuesday, a who's who of top Republican brass was calling for Householder's resignation. They included Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Attorney General Dave Yost, and Republican Chairwoman Jane Timken.

While loosening the GOP's grip on the Ohio Legislature is a big job — Republicans control 61 of 99 House seats and 24 of 33 Senate seats — Householder's arrest could give a boost to Democrats' hopes. Before the afternoon was out, Democrats also had begun soliciting political donations in support of the GOP's ouster, saying their candidates could end a "culture of corruption" they blamed on one-party rule.

Among U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers' allegations is that Householder used millions of dollars in the scheme to fund his own campaign and the campaigns of a network of sitting lawmakers and legislative newcomers who would eventually support his bid for the speakership.

Those 21 candidates — who ran in the 2018 primary and general elections — were not named in the complaint, but DeVillers did not rule out future charges in the probe.

"This is by no means over," he told reporters Tuesday.

The arrests also were being noticed by Republican congressional candidates in tight districts Democrats believe they could swing this fall.

U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, a first-term GOP congressman who won a narrow victory in 2018, joined the chorus of Republicans seeking Householder's resignation.

He said that "holding public office is a high honor and should be treated as such" and that the allegations against Householder, if true, are "shocking."

The arrests come as former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden has seen a boost in the polls and has begun to contemplate competing in closely divided states like Ohio, which Republican Donald Trump won handily in 2016.

Still, the cast of characters caught up in the government's bribery investigation reflects Ohio's political complexities when it comes to Trump.

Householder is a Trump supporter whose caucus includes one member who refused to have her temperature taken before entering the Statehouse and another who urged the public not to get tested for the coronavirus. A political maverick who harbors ambitions to higher office, Householder also has been critical of DeWine over the governor's early aggressive moves against the virus. The speaker backed legislation that would have undercut the DeWine administration's power to enforce its virus-related health orders. DeWine vetoed the bill Friday.

Lobbyist Matt Borges, also arrested in the scheme, on the other hand, has jumped ship on Trump. An ally of former Republican Gov. John Kasich and an outspoken Trump detractor, Borges was recently censured by the state GOP's central committee for helping launch a super PAC seeking votes for Biden over Trump this fall.