Speaker snared in Ohio bribery probe liked to play long game

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Tension was thick in the air. After 10 consecutive votes in which another man had garnered more support than Larry Householder's favored candidate to be the next Ohio House speaker, Householder leaned back quietly in his chair, arms confidently propped behind his head.

As usual, he was playing the long game.

The Republican now accused in a $60 million federal bribery probe had contributed to a monthslong impasse over the speakership that brought Ohio lawmaking to a standstill in 2018 and left a trail of intimidated, disheartened representatives in its path.

The previous House speaker had resigned amid scandal. Householder wanted a proxy in the job until he could run for the full two-year term himself a few months later. Even if his man lost now, though, he was counting votes and sizing up loyalties for the future as the roll was taken again and again.

The leading candidate, then-Rep. Ryan Smith, became speaker that day on the 11th vote. But Householder would take the job six months later with crucial support he had lined up — from Democrats. With promises of bipartisan cooperation, the master dealmaker had once again gotten what he wanted.

“Either over the last 18 years, this dais has gotten smaller or I have gotten larger,” Householder, who had put on a few pounds since last serving as speaker from 2001 to 2004, quipped in his slight southern Ohio drawl as he took the gavel.

His triumphant return had been achieved, a feat federal prosecutors now say was fueled by millions of dollars of bribe money funneled to Householder and his associates for the passage of a nuclear bailout bill he would champion soon after his ascendancy.

According to the criminal complaint, Householder and his associates spent the money to boost themselves politically and personally, to stage often nasty campaigns to elect Householder loyalists, to buy votes for the bailout bill and to poison subsequent efforts to repeal it.

Householder, 61, was widely believed to have been positioning himself to run for governor. With a down-home demeanor and a degree in political science, the farm kid and one-time insurance agent has the rural Appalachian profile that tends to work with Ohio voters. Two icons of Ohio politics — four-term governor James Rhodes and Democrat Vern Riffe, the battleground state's longest-serving House speaker — were from the same southeastern Ohio region.

Dressed in full camo, Householder declared himself “a pro-gun, pro-life, Christian conservative” in a sharply produced 2018 campaign ad in which he shot a television set with a rifle. He's a Trump supporter who clashed with GOP Gov. Mike DeWine over wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, refusing to don one until after his arrest Tuesday, when he wore a mask as he exited the federal courthouse.

Republican Richard Finan, who was Ohio Senate president when Householder was last speaker, remembers Householder being under the cloud of a different FBI investigation when he left office due to term limits in 2004.

The earlier FBI probe of Householder resulted in no charges and was ultimately dropped, but Finan said he was questioned by the FBI. It stemmed from allegations of heavy-handed fundraising tactics used by Householder and his team, including aides who had authored a secret memo outlining a plot to “dismantle” the political career of then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Black Republican whose rising political star stood to outshine Householder’s.

“I was not surprised,” Finan said of Householder's arrest. “My dealings with him when I was there were not good.”

It began with Finan having to find a place in the Senate for then-state Rep. Bill Harris after that era's ugly speaker fight. Then-Speaker JoAnn Davidson had struck a deal allowing Harris and Householder to share the speakership, each taking a year. Householder worked secretly against the deal for months until he lined up enough votes to call it off and take the job for himself.

Finan has a vivid memory of participating in hourslong budget negotiations with Householder and then-Gov. Bob Taft, all three Republicans, as they tried to resolve a $1.5 billion shortfall back in 2001. Finan said the deal was finally hammered out around midnight and Taft suggested the “Big Three” go out into the hall as a group and tell the press.

“We walked out the door of the governor's office, I turned around and looked for Larry. He wasn’t there. He had gone out the back door,” Finan said. “He went back over to the House and the next day he announced a totally different proposal supported by the OEA.”

The Ohio Education Association is the state's largest teachers union, a generous political player. Ohio is a closely divided state when it comes so politics, so not everyone saw that 2001 school-funding deal, which ultimately went nowhere, as a negative.

Bill Phillis, an education lobbyist who helped negotiate it, said he didn't have a problem with Householder bucking fellow Republicans. In Householder's nearly two-decade absence from the Statehouse, the state's unconstitutional school-funding system has never been fixed. Phillis said the speaker was trying to spearhead a bipartisan solution.

“I’m distraught that the school funding issue is not yet resolved, and I think Larry Householder had in mind resolving it,” he said.

Householder has thus far ignored calls for his resignation from Democrats and Republicans alike. But, with his preliminary hearing in the federal probe set for August, the long game on Householder's policy agenda and political aspirations is now on a different timetable.