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Election panel delays Householder campaign finance review

June 24, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, file photo, then Republican Ohio state Rep. Larry Householder, sits at the head of a legislative session as Speaker of the House, in Columbus. On Thursday, June 24, 2021, the Ohio Elections Commission delayed its review of a massive list of campaign finance violations brought by the state elections chief against Householder and other suspects in an alleged $60 million bribery scheme, citing the ongoing federal investigation. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, file photo, then Republican Ohio state Rep. Larry Householder, sits at the head of a legislative session as Speaker of the House, in Columbus. On Thursday, June 24, 2021, the Ohio Elections Commission delayed its review of a massive list of campaign finance violations brought by the state elections chief against Householder and other suspects in an alleged $60 million bribery scheme, citing the ongoing federal investigation. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Elections Commission on Thursday delayed its review of a massive list of campaign finance violations brought by the state elections chief against suspects in an alleged $60 million bribery scheme, citing the ongoing investigation.

During a virtual meeting, the panel continued its review of Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s allegations against expelled former House Speaker Larry Householder and others named in the federal indictment to an unspecified future date. Both LaRose and Householder are Republicans.

The decision came over the objections of Republican Attorney General Dave Yost, whose counsel Jonathan Blanton argued the panel had all the facts it needed to conduct its review of Householder’s conduct and make a criminal referral.

“There is no compelling reason to kick this can down the road to an as-yet-undetermined date,” he said, calling evidence that Householder made two transfers totaling $920,000 from his campaign account to the lawyers defending him in the criminal case “pretty clear-cut.”

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Blanton said donors didn’t make contributions to Householder’s political campaign so that he could defend himself against criminal allegations and it was up to commissioners to defend their interests.

“The people deserve answers and they deserve action,” he said. “This is an opportunity to give them that without in any way interfering with what’s going on outside this commission’s purview.”

Commissioners disagreed in a divided vote, siding with their director, Phil Richter, and Householder’s attorney, Nicholas Oleski, who contended Householder would be unable to defend himself because of the federal investigation.

Also Thursday, the panel agreed to withdraw a number of the more than 180 allegations that LaRose had forwarded to them earlier, at LaRose’s request, and removed former Statehouse lobbyist Neil Clark, who died by suicide in March, from the case.

LaRose has said a routine examination of state filings by Friends of Larry Householder showed five individuals exceeded legal giving limits between March 11, 2019, and Jan. 15, 2020.

Householder was ousted as speaker after he, Clark and three others were indicted in July 2020 on federal racketeering charges for what has been called the biggest corruption scandal in state history. Householder has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence.

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The House expelled Householder last week in an historic vote, the first of its kind in 150 years, over his protests and those of allies that the expulsion was inappropriate. Householder made two impassioned pleas for keeping his seat, at a committee hearing and on the House floor, noting voters had returned him to the Statehouse in November even knowing the allegations he faced.

Householder is accused of leading a bribery scheme secretly funded by the utility FirstEnergy to get a $1 billion nuclear bailout bill approved and to conduct a dirty tricks campaign to prevent a repeal of the legislation from reaching the ballot.

Two of his alleged co-conspirators — long-time political adviser Jeffrey Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes — have pleaded guilty. The third who remains, former lobbyist and Ohio Republican Party Chair Matt Borges, has pleaded not guilty.

LaRose said Cespedes is one of five donors he has referred to the Ohio Elections Commission. Cespedes contributed $1,000 to Householder in June 2019 and $13,292 that November, exceeding an aggregate contribution cap by close to $1,000.

The withdrawn LaRose claims included donations to the Ohio House Republican Caucus’ campaign committee and its treasurer, as well as the government’s “Representative 3,” his campaign and its treasurer. That person has been identified as state Rep. Jamie Callendar, a co-sponsor of the tainted legislation.

LaRose told the commission in March that, upon review, his office found the withdrawn allegations were likely permissible PAC contributions rather than impermissible corporate contributions.