COLUMBUS, Ohio — Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder has spent nearly $950,000 from his campaign account on legal fees since his arrest in July on federal corruption, according to the campaign-finance report he filed with the state on Thursday.
Nearly all of that money — $939,476 — went to two law firms that are aiding in his criminal legal defense. Two experts in state campaign-finance law called the spending questionable, since the Ohio Elections Commission, which interprets and enforces election law in Ohio, repeatedly has found that spending campaign money on a candidate’s criminal defense is illegal under state law.
Campaign finance records show Householder paid $660,000 to Marein and Bradley, the Cleveland law firm he hired to defend him in court, including $500,000 on Sept. 2, the day the firm formally notified the federal judge overseeing the case that it was representing him.
Householder also paid $260,000, including $100,000 on Sept. 2, to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal and Liffman, a Cleveland law firm that is assisting in Householder’s defense.
Mark Marein, a Marein and Bradley partner, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment. Robert Glickman, an attorney with McCarthy Lebit, declined to comment. He said the firm would need to speak with Householder to obtain permission before discussing any matters.
Householder paid another $29,476 in August and September to Langdon Law LLC, a firm owned by David Langdon, who specializes in political law. Langdon is not known to be connected to Householder’s criminal defense. He didn’t return a message seeking comment.
He paid another $106,124 to Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP on July 15, the week before his arrest. An attorney with the firm, David Thomas, represented Householder in initial federal court appearances, but also has performed political-related legal work for Householder in the past. Thomas withdrew from the case shortly Householder’s arrest, citing conflicts of interest.
Ohio law only allows political candidates to spend campaign money on legitimate campaign-related expenses, said Ryan Stubenrauch, an attorney who specializes in elections law.
“The Ohio Elections Commission has repeatedly issued advisory opinions for the last 30 years saying that legal fees associated with individual criminal conduct are not legitimate campaign expenses,” Stubenrauch said.
“It’s hard to imagine a situation where someone could be under criminal charges that’s connected to their office and be able to use their campaign account to defend themselves,” said Scott Hubay, another lawyer who specializes in campaign-finance law.
“It’s begging for someone to file an elections commission complaint, if it hasn’t already happened,” he added.
Making an improper campaign expenditure for personal use is a first-degree misdemeanor under state law, which carries up to a $1,000 fine.
Messages have been left seeking comment with spokespeople for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. Both, like Householder, are Republicans.
The OEC in a 1996 advisory opinion said a former officeholder couldn’t use campaign money to pay for their criminal defense. But the opinion referenced a case from that year in which it was allowed, after a criminal case was dismissed before it went to trial.
“The commission hereby distinguished its holding … under the belief that there may be limited circumstances under which the legitimacy inherent in the statute…may be specifically rebutted by clear and convincing evidence presented to the commission on a case by case basis,” the 1996 opinion reads.
Federal prosecutors say Householder, one of the state’s most powerful politicians at the time of his arrest, played a central role in a $61 million bribery scheme, paid by FirstEnergy and its affiliates, in exchange for Householder helping push through a $1 billion bailout bill for two nuclear plants formerly owned by FirstEnergy.
Prosecutors allege the money was spent on ads and other political expenses, first to help Householder become House speaker, then to pressure the legislature into passing the bill and finally to defend it against a repeal effort.
Householder has pleaded not guilty and has told reporters he did nothing wrong. While the House voted to remove him from his leadership position, it has not sought to expel him from the legislature. Householder, from Perry County, has refused to resign and is expected to be re-elected in November.