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 nearly $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 since-ousted 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% 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 millions 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.”
“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,” he added.
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.
Democrats are not alone in returning their FirstEnergy contributions. Some Republican lawmakers also have decided to donate the funds to charitable causes since Householder’s arrest.
GOP Gov. Mike DeWine announced in the days following the bribery revelations that he would be returning all contributions he received from individuals named in the investigation, but stopped short of committing the donations from FirstEnergy.
Farnoush Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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