Dems fault GOP, return cash tainted by Ohio bribery scheme

By Farnoush Amiri and Julie Carr Smyth - Report for America/Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With their presidential hopes high for fall, some Ohio Democrats who helped seat a now-indicted Republican House speaker and pass the nuclear bailout bill prosecutors allege he delivered as part of a $61 million bribery scheme have begun shedding campaign contributions tainted by the related federal probe.

In doing so, Democrats have sought to keep the corruption spotlight shining on the GOP, which has also tried to distance itself from former Speaker Larry Householder in a critical election year.

“I could never have known, and did not know, that Householder was actually conducting one of the largest bribery schemes in Ohio history,” said state Rep. Tavia Galonski, an Akron Democrat, in announcing she’d donate her FirstEnergy contributions to charity. “What I know now is that the legislative process surrounding HB 6 was irrevocably tainted by Republican corruption.”

Householder and four associates were arrested July 21 and charged with secretly receiving money from FirstEnergy, the government’s “Company A,” and using it to boost themselves politically and personally, to secure Householder’s election as speaker and then to pass a $1 billion bailout bill and poison subsequent efforts to repeal it.

Of the more than $400,000 that FirstEnergy’s political action committee has donated to legislative campaigns since 2017, only about 12% of it went to Democrats, according to an Associated Press review. Still, all but two of 20 Democrats who received contributions from the PAC during that time voted either for Householder as speaker, for the bailout bill or both, the review found. Those reported contributions are not part of the $61 million identified by the government as part of the scheme.

At least six have announced plans to shed the money: Galonski and Reps. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, John Rogers of Mentor-on-the-Lake, Lisa Sobecki of Toledo, Terrence Upchurch of Cleveland and Thomas West of Canton.

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat who received no FirstEnergy contributions and opposed the bailout bill, told the AP her caucus was being pragmatic when some of its members joined Republicans in electing Householder speaker last year — but that does not imply they are culpable in the sweeping corruption alleged against him.

“When someone perpetrates wrongdoing, it is the fault of that person or those persons who did that,” she said. “And I recognize that the blame-all-sides is an easy argument to make, but it is false in its presumption that there was any participation in wrongdoing (by Democrats). The charging documents lay out clearly who is at fault, at least according to the FBI, and that is who is at fault.”

Among Democrats in the Senate, Cleveland Sen. Sandra Williams, a co-sponsor of House Bill 6, benefited most from the energy giant’s largesse, receiving $12,000 from the FirstEnergy PAC from 2017 through this year. Williams has not responded to repeated requests for comment. Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, who voted in favor of the bailout bill, received $5,000, including $1,000 a month before the vote and $2,500 after it passed.

In committing her $1,500 in FirstEnergy donations to Lucas County Children’s Services, Sobecki told The (Toledo) Blade she wanted to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.”

Upchurch said it was a step “to hold me accountable as an elected official.” He added, “To be clear, I have never considered a vote on legislation for any reason other than what is best for my district residents and Ohio citizens.”

Lepore-Hagan backed Householder for speaker, but she was a vocal opponent of the bailout bill. She donated her FirstEnergy contributions to ACTION, the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods.

“I’m confident they will use the funds to improve the quality of life in our community,” she said.

West is donating his FirstEnergy contributions to a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship fund in his county. He said FirstEnergy serves part of his district and he supported the bill to save plant communities.

“My aim was to save good-paying union jobs, reduce utility bills and save a balanced and more diversified platform of energy in Ohio,” he said.

Two Republican lawmakers have also decided to donate campaign money from FirstEnergy to charity in recent weeks. Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, of Perrysburg, donated $2,500 in donations to the Brown Bag Food Project, a food pantry in his Bowling Green, the Sentinel-Tribune reported.

GOP Rep. Theresa Gavarone, of Bowling Green, said that following the release of the federal affidavit in late July, she also decided to donate $8,500 in contributions she received from First Energy to charity. “Details are still in the works right now but I am looking into charities across my five-county district,” Gavarone told the Tribune.

In the days following the release of the bribery probe, GOP Gov. Mike DeWine announced he would be returning all contributions he received from individuals named in the investigation, but stopped short of committing the donations from FirstEnergy.

By Farnoush Amiri and Julie Carr Smyth

Report for America/Associated Press