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Bribery Charges in Ohio Illuminate the Dangers of Dark Money

When the public can’t see where election spending comes from, corruption flourishes.

The speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives was kicked out of his role last week after being arrested by the FBI on bribery charges a few weeks earlier. Larry Householder stands accused of taking bribes and turning those bribes into dark money, which is money spent on elections where the source is unknown to the public. His alleged crimes are exactly the type of scheme that campaign finance advocates have been warning of for years.

At the federal level, over $1 billion in dark money has been spent since 2008, and dark money has grown in state elections as well.

A federal grand jury indicted Householder for a public corruption racketeering conspiracy, and several lobbyists were also charged. According to the Justice Department, the $60 million bribery scheme in Ohio was funded by an energy company then called FirstEnergy which is now called Energy Harbor. The company wanted a bailout bill that would cost the taxpayers of Ohio a billion dollars — and it got it. House Bill 6 was shepherded through the Ohio House by Householder, passed the Ohio Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine in 2019. The bailout applies to two nuclear power plants in Ohio owned by FirstEnergy/Energy Harbor.

According to the DOJ, the energy company gave millions of dollars to Householder’s advocacy nonprofit, called Generation Now. It then spent dark money in Ohio elections supporting both candidates and a campaign for the bailout bill. Because this money was dark, the voters in Ohio did not know its corporate source or Householder’s role in dolling it out. Generation Now, a 501(c)(4), was also charged as being a participant in the conspiracy.

This is precisely the trouble with dark money in our elections. It could be covering up all sorts of illegality, from alleged bribes of lawmakers in the Ohio case here or potentially illegal foreign money in American elections. And even when dark money is simply hiding a cowardly corporate donor, it still robs shareholders and voters of transparency and accountability.

But to Ohio’s credit, Householder is now out of power after a unanimous vote to relieve him of his speakership, and legislation has been introduced to fight dark money in future Ohio elections. One bill would make certain nonprofits disclose political spending. Another bill would require disclosure from entities that make contributions to candidates in Ohio. Either would be an improvement on the dark money free-for-all that allowed the $60 million bribery scheme to flourish for years under everyone’s noses. A third bill, which clearly has Householder in mind, would allow for the forfeiture of state retirement benefits for conviction of bribery or other federal crimes.

Ohio’s approach to increasing transparency should be adopted at the federal level as well. The Federal Election Commission, which has primary regulatory power over enforcing federal campaign finance laws, has allowed the dark money problem to fester, and it currently lacks a quorum so can’t even function. Congress should direct the agency to end dark money in federal elections once and for all.

One sad coda to the story in Ohio is that House Bill 6 is still law in Ohio. An attempt to revoke it by the voters via a referendum failed. Here’s then-Speaker Householder’s gloating statement from last year about that failure. He also stands accused by the FBI of helping to fund that effort’s defeat. This leaves the Ohio taxpayers on the hook for his shenanigans.

Another odd footnote is that Householder has not been kicked out of his position as a legislator and he is running unopposed in the fall election so far.

The Ohio saga demonstrates that the temptation to bribe politicians in power to get taxpayer money is an ever-present threat. Especially when the payout is a billion dollars of taxpayer funds, multi-million dollar bribes seem like an easy way to get a high return on an investment.

Dark money makes tracing what’s going on in elections nearly impossible for voters. The loopholes allowing dark money should be ended for the good of our democracy and the integrity of our government at all levels.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.