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Four operatives plead not guilty in $60M bribery probe

COLUMBUS (AP) — Four Ohio lobbyists and political operatives pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges they conspired as part of what one defendant called an “unholy alliance” aimed at bailing out two aging Ohio nuclear power plants.

Former Republican House Speaker Larry Householder and four others are charged with racketeering for their roles in the alleged scheme, under a law federal prosecutors typically use to charge gang members.

The five are accused of shepherding $60 million in energy company money for personal and political use in exchange for passing a legislative bailout of two aging nuclear plants and then derailing an attempt to place a rejection of the bailout on the ballot.

A judge on Thursday allowed Householder to delay his court appearance as he seeks a new attorney, a request prosecutors didn’t oppose. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black said Householder will have a new hearing in two weeks.

Householder’s current attorney, David Thomas, has a conflict that requires him to step down, he said in a Monday court filing that didn’t specify the conflict. Thomas will represent Householder until a new attorney is hired. Thomas has previously declined to comment.

Householder was removed from his leadership post in a unanimous vote following his arrest last month.

Also charged were Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican Party chairman; Neil Clark, a longtime Statehouse lobbyist; Jeffrey Longstreth, a longtime Householder political adviser; and Juan Cespedes, another lobbyist described as a “key middleman.”

Lawyers for the four entered not guilty pleas during a brief hearing conducted by video. Attorney Robert Krapenc, representing Longstreth, declined comment. Attorney Mark Collins, representing Cespedes, said “Now the real work starts once we receive the discovery,” referring to evidence prosecutors must turn over to defense lawyers. Attorneys for Clark and Borges did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

An attorney for Borges has previously called the charges against him “wrong and unfortunate.” An attorney for Clark said he did not “see any culpability” in the case.

The government says the energy company money was funneled through Generation Now, a group created to promote “social welfare” under a provision of federal tax law that shields its funding source or spending. The government says part of the scheme involved bribing or otherwise discouraging signature gatherers from doing their job.

An 82-page criminal complaint makes clear the energy company is FirstEnergy and its affiliates. FirstEnergy’s CEO has said he and the company did nothing wrong.

In a recorded conversation in September 2019, Borges described the relationship between Householder and the energy company as “this unholy alliance,” according to the July 21 complaint that lays out the details of the alleged scheme.

A nonprofit called Generation Now is also charged as a corporation. No lawyer represented the group Thursday.

Racketeering is a charge that federal prosecutors have used to go after members of the mafia. In recent years, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbus — which brought the charges against Householder and the others — used the law to prosecute members of a violent street gang known as the Short North Posse.

Lawmakers from both parties have pledged to repeal the bailout and to pass legislation requiring disclosure of money contributed to and spent by dark money groups.

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