CINCINNATI — A federal judge must decide whether Larry Householder is a broken man, humiliated by his public corruption conviction, who should serve a few months in prison and return to his Perry County farm; or a ruthless mob boss who commanded one of the largest dark money racketeering schemes in the nation and should spend two decades incarcerated.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black is set to make that decision at a sentencing hearing for the former Ohio House speaker on Thursday.
A jury convicted Householder and former Ohio Republican Party Chair Matt Borges in March after a six-week trial that drew national attention.
Prosecutors want Householder to serve 16 to 20 years in prison, due to the size and sophistication of the scheme. Racketeering conspiracy, or RICO, is a charge more often associated with organized crime bosses than elected leaders and lobbyists.
“He acted as the quintessential mob boss, directing the criminal enterprise from the shadows and using his casket carriers to execute the scheme,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter wrote in a sentencing memorandum reminding the judge that Householder never expressed remorse.
Prosecutors say he led a complex scheme to funnel $60 million in dark money from Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. and its subsidiary to elect him as speaker, solidify his power base, secure enough votes to pass a ratepayer-funded bailout of two nuclear plants worth $1.3 billion and ensure it survived a ballot campaign to overturn it.
Householder took the witness stand, trying to convince jurors that he was an honest, frugal “old Appalachian boy,” who loved his family and the common folk of Ohio who he referred to as Bob and Betty Buckeye.
But jurors returned a guilty verdict after nine hours of deliberation, without asking a single question.
Now Householder’s family members and supporters are trying to convince the judge that the 64-year-old deserves sympathy during his sentencing hearing.
“I need my dad!!! My kids need their grandpa!!! We need him at the farm where he has always been when we need him, not sitting in some prison cell,” Householder’s son, Matthew Householder wrote in a letter to the judge.
Matthew Householder wrote about his father’s years as a Little League baseball coach, and volunteer work for the county fair, food drives, disabled veterans and the church, and his devotion to family, farm, community and public service.
“I hope you as you consider how much more to take away from Larry Householder, that you consider how much he has already paid forward, I think you'll find he is paid up,” Matthew Householder wrote.
Householder’s wife, Taundra, who is age 65, begged for sympathy in her letter to the judge, hoping to spend her retirement years with her husband.
“I am not stable and strong, he is the rock and the only way our family has survived. He is the reason many people have survived. I see no way our family and especially me, can survive the last years we have left ... apart,” she wrote, asking that he receive probation.
But her letter also hinted at her husband's innocence, and criticized the government.
“The government made an argument in court that Larry is all about power and money. You should have heard the people that know him laugh. That is so opposite of him. Larry would not have given up his insurance agency, but he did because he never wanted even a hint of a conflict of interest, he wanted to focus on doing a great job for the people of Ohio. I have been with him many, many times when people try to buy our dinner, Larry wouldn't allow it, he could care less about money,” she wrote.
Householder’s attorneys are asking for a 12-to 18-month prison term, which is drastically less than the two decades recommended by the federal sentencing guidelines.
Several legal experts say a sentence that low is highly unlikely.
“They’re definitely going to argue for a lesser sentence here. I don’t think it’s going to be successful,” said former prosecutor Steve Goodin, who watched some of Householder’s trial. “They have nothing to lose literally at this point.”
Goodin predicted a sentence for Householder in the 10- to 12- year range.
“This sort of conduct could very easily be repeated. The 501(c)4 dark money organizations are still absolutely legal, they’re still very, very active,” Goodin said, noting that the judge “will be very concerned about making sure that this case isn’t for nothing and that he tries to deter this type of behavior.”
In many past cases before Black, Goodin said the judge has spoken about using a prison sentence to deter future crimes.
“That’s something that I’ve really heard him harp on in other sentences before … how do we deter this behavior from others,” Goodin said. “It’s one of the reasons I think Judge Black will hand down a sentence that is in years rather than months, and hand down a relatively stiff sentence here.”
Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, predicted that Householder would get a prison term closer to the 20-year maximum.
“It would not be surprising to anybody given the scope of what happened, the magnitude of the money, and the impact on the public trust,” Benza said.
Benza predicted that Borges will also get a long prison term at his sentencing hearing on Friday, despite having a lesser role in the scheme.
Prosecutors are asking Borges to serve five to eight years in prison; defense attorneys are asking for him to serve 12 months plus one day in prison.
FBI agents spent years investigating statehouse corruption, including using wire taps and undercover agents to build their case, before arresting Householder at his farm on July 20, 2020.
“That morning when the federal agents showed up on our porch with automatic rifles and in combat gear we both were totally shocked. Since then, over the last 3 years, life has been a constant struggle. Each day we wake up not knowing what obstacles we will face that day,” Taundra Householder wrote.
Along with Householder and Borges, the grand jury indicted three others as part of the same racketeering scheme.
Two pleaded guilty to conspiracy and testified at trial: former FirstEnergy lobbyist Juan Cespedes, who told jurors, “I am guilty of the charge … I’m not proud of it,” and Householder advisor Jeffrey Longstreth, who said, “I handled the money. By doing that, I facilitated everything else that happened.”
A third, Columbus lobbyist Neil Clark, took his own life a year after his arrest. Clark died from a gunshot wound to the head in March 2021, while wearing a blue “DeWine for Governor” T-shirt, according to his Florida autopsy report which was reported by numerous media outlets.
The people who took part in this criminal enterprise called themselves, “Team Householder,” “House Bill 6 Team,” and “People on the Farm,” said Glatfelter, who noted that Householder wanted to find “casket carriers,”or people who were loyal to him above all else — even their own constituents as elected leaders.
But several former state lawmakers and political advisers wrote letters asking for sympathy for Householder. Some blamed the media and his political enemies for unfairly portraying him.
“Every experience I have had with Mr. Householder has been honorable and professional in nature … the idea of him ever masterminding an illegal scheme is something nearly impossible for me to even consider, much less believe,” wrote Republican strategist William Greene III in a letter to the judge. “My sincere belief is that any mistakes that might have taken place were errors of the mind, and not the heart.”
Former state representative John Hagan wrote, “I watched the speaker, in the years we served together, always moving legislation that kept people’s interest front and center … my plea to you Judge Black is that you exercise compassion in sentencing this man that I consider a friend.”
Whatever sentence Black delivers to Householder and Borges this week, legal experts say these cases will likely not end for several years and could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, experts predict that Householder and Borges will undoubtedly ask the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to delay prison while their appeals are being heard.
Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio David DeVillers, said both convictions will survive the appeals.
“I don't think it will be overturned in the Sixth Circuit … the question is what is the Supreme Court going to do,” DeVillers said. “We did a really deep dive into the past 20 years of the Supreme Court's rulings regarding federal public corruption cases against state officials. We looked at those cases and we talked to public integrity within DOJ (Department of Justice) and worked with our own appellate people and … we think that that it's a solid case within current law.”
DeVillers, who is now in private practice in Columbus, said this case has gotten the attention of many public officials and lobbyists.
“People are starting to pay attention and look into what is legal and what is illegal,” DeVillers said. “What makes this case unique is it shows the influence and how easy it is to use 501(c)4 dark money groups to launder massive amounts of bribe money … if this case is going to have any national impact, that’s where it lies.”
It has been nearly three years since Householder's arrest, but more arrests could still be coming.
“As (current U.S. Attorney) Ken Parker has said, a couple of times, the investigation is ongoing” DeVillers said.
When asked what’s taking so long, DeVillers said, “They've been busy, you know, and the truth is there's only so many (assistant U.S. attorneys) and they're not just doing public corruption. There are murders, there's fentanyl, there's economic crime. There's lots of different crimes and there's only so many people that are designated for public corruption.”
“So, the people that tried the Householder case are the same people who are investigating the Householder case,” DeVillers said.
It’s possible the government has already made secret deals with other defendants, Benza said.
“It could be … that there will be some people who will never be prosecuted, in spite of the government's evidence demonstrating guilt,” Benza said. “It also could be the government is waiting to see who they want to go after next.”