Every corner of Ohio politics has been touched in some way by former state Rep. Larry Householder and the House Bill 6 scandal.
The special election in the 15th Congressional District is no exception.
Multiple candidates in the crowded GOP field can be traced to the controversy through votes, donations and ties to a coal lobbying group that benefited from its passage.
HB 6 scandal: Larry Householder and a who’s who of others involved
The arrests of Householder and four GOP operatives in July 2020 didn’t seem to affect statehouse races a few months later — Republicans picked up seats and lost one held by a lawmaker that cooperated with the FBI. But Democrats have signaled they plan to make the scandal and the legislation key issues in future campaigns, including for the 15th District.
“The last thing the honest people of this district need is one more politician or lobbyist dirtied with the stench of Ohio’s largest corruption scandal — Washington is swampy enough,” state Rep. Allison Russo, an Upper Arlington Democrat running for the district, said in a statement.
More:What voters need to know about the candidates for Ohio’s 15th Congressional District
Eleven Republicans will face off Aug. 3 to get one step closer to replacing former U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, who left Congress to join the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Russo is vying for the Democratic nomination against retired U.S. Army colonel Greg Betts.
Here’s more about how some candidates are linked to the bill and the multimillion-dollar push to pass it.
Votes for and against House Bill 6
Among the GOP candidates are state Rep. Jeff LaRe of Violet Township, Sen. Bob Peterson of Washington Court House and Sen. Stephanie Kunze of Hilliard. Peterson and LaRe both supported a bill introduced by then-Speaker Householder in 2019 that overhauled the state’s energy laws and provided subsidies for nuclear power plants.
What they didn’t know at the time is that one year later, Householder would be arrested and accused of orchestrating a nearly $61 million operation to win control of the Ohio House, pass the legislation and defend that law against a ballot initiative to block it.
“I believe that it’s important to maintain our energy independence,” said LaRe, who was appointed to the House in 2019, just days before the first vote on the legislation. “It’s my understanding that House Bill 6 would be ultimately lowering the utility bills for Ohioans.”
Kunze opposed the legislation at the behest of her constituents, and she believed its impact on renewable energy would cost jobs in her district. But she said she remembers a mail campaign urging her to vote for the bill.
“I know there was enormous pressure that was put on myself,” she said.
Coal lobbyist turned Trump-backed candidate
Another candidate who found himself ensnared in the Householder scandal is Mike Carey, a longtime lobbyist for Murray Energy — which became American Consolidated Natural Resources after Murray filed for bankruptcy. Carey also chairs the Ohio Coal Association board and is endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
Dubbed “Company B” in the criminal complaint against Householder, Murray Energy provided $100,000 to the dark money group Hardworking Ohioans that helped support Householder-backed candidates in the 2018 general election. Founder Robert Murray, who died last year, was a longtime contributor to Trump and other Republican politicians.
The company has not been charged with a crime.
Carey said Murray was contacted by hundreds of fundraisers across the country and typically supported Republican candidates. Murray would sometimes ask his advice about donations, he said, but not always. And he was shocked when the allegations against Householder surfaced.
“We knew Larry Householder,” Carey said. “There’s no doubt. Mr. Murray was very supportive of Householder. That was way before he became speaker.”
State records show Carey registered as a lobbyist on House Bill 6 but said the company ultimately remained neutral, and he never provided testimony at any of the committee hearings. Still, the company stood to benefit from its passage: The law enabled FirstEnergy to keep 1,490 megawatts of coal-fired power generation running at its W.H. Sammis plant in eastern Ohio along the Ohio River.
Murray Energy supplied coal to that plant.
After Householder and four Republican operatives were charged in the bribery and racketeering investigation, Ohio lawmakers were quick to distance themselves from those involved.
According to campaign finance records, LaRe in early 2020 received $1,000 from FirstEnergy and $5,000 from former Ohio Republican Party chair Matthew Borges. The year prior, he received $13,000 total from Juan Cespedes, co-founder of The Oxley Group in Columbus.
Less than a week after their arrests, LaRe donated the funds to a handful of charities.
Peterson, meanwhile, received over $26,000 from FirstEnergy from 2011 to 2018 and nearly $5,000 from former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio chair Sam Randazzo. Randazzo resigned from the commission in November after the FBI searched his home, and FirstEnergy later disclosed Randazzo received $4.3 million from the utility in exchange for his help.
Randazzo also donated over $1,400 to Kunze’s campaign, records show. His contributions to Kunze and Peterson came before Gov. Mike DeWine appointed him to PUCO in February 2019.
“After we learned of Householder’s actions, I led the effort to undo the subsidies associated with his corrupt activity,” Peterson said in a statement. “I never received any campaign contributions from Sam Randazzo or FirstEnergy while the discussions were occurring on House Bill 6.”
Since then, the candidates have supported efforts to repeal part of House Bill 6, and LaRe joined the majority of his House colleagues in expelling Householder from the chamber. LaRe said it was a necessary move to help restore trust in public service, and he believes lawmakers need to create greater transparency for Ohioans going forward.
“It’s important that our constituents trust the work that we’re doing and that they’ve got the visibility of how that’s getting done,” he said.
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.