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Ohio speaker's arrest in bribery probe muddies 2020 election

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The arrest of Ohio’s House speaker on federal bribery charges has suddenly thrown a shadow over not just his political future, but that of his party, in a state where Republicans have been preparing to solidify control.

Federal prosecutors say Republican Speaker Larry Householder and four others — including a former state GOP chairman — perpetrated a $60 million federal bribery scheme connected to a taxpayer-funded bailout of Ohio’s two nuclear power plants. How many others got caught up in the sweeping probe is yet to be known.

The scope of the accusations threatens to unfurl the GOP’s tight hold on Ohio’s governing body, which is set to draw new congressional maps in 2021 in one of the country’s most gerrymandered states. The chance to control Ohio’s representation in Washington for the next decade has put flipping at least some legislative seats on Democrats’ national radar.

The scandal’s potential political fallout for Republicans was evidenced by the swift rebukes of Householder by politicians and party leaders alike.

Practically before he’d left the federal courthouse Tuesday, a who’s who of top Republican brass was calling for Householder’s resignation. They included Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Attorney General Dave Yost.

An angry GOP Chair Jane Timken went further. Emphasizing that Republicans stand for “accountability and rule of law,” she distanced the organization from Householder and hinted that Democrats who participated in his bipartisan election to the speakership should share culpability for placing him in power.

“When Mr. Householder worked closely with Democrats in the House to achieve the votes necessary to become Speaker, I realized that he does things his own way,” she said. “He will now face his own reckoning.”

While loosening the GOP’s grip on the Ohio Legislature is a big job — Republicans control 61 of 99 House seats and 24 of 33 Senate seats — Householder’s arrest could give a boost to Democrats’ hopes. Before the afternoon was out, Democrats had begun soliciting political donations in support of the GOP’s ouster, saying their candidates could end a “culture of corruption” they blamed on one-party rule.

“Our greatest hope for Ohio is that those officials who have defrauded the taxpayers and abused the people’s trust finally have a moment of accountability, whether that comes from the legal system or at the ballot box this November,” Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper said in a statement.

Among U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers’ allegations is that Householder used millions of dollars caught up in the scheme to fund his own campaign and the campaigns of a network of sitting lawmakers and legislative newcomers who would eventually support his bid for the speakership.

Those 21 candidates — who ran in the 2018 primary and general elections — were not named in the complaint, but DeVillers did not rule out future charges in the probe.

“This is by no means over,” he told reporters Tuesday.

The remaining members of Householder’s leadership team issued a statement saying no other member of the Ohio General Assembly was under investigation, to their knowledge, in relation to the probe.

The arrests also were being noticed by Republican congressional candidates in tight districts that Democrats believe they could swing this fall.

U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, a first-term GOP congressman who won a narrow victory in 2018, joined the chorus of Republicans seeking Householder’s resignation.

He said “holding public office is a high honor and should be treated as such” and that the allegations against Householder, if true, are “shocking.”

The arrests come as former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden has seen a boost in the polls and has begun to contemplate competing in closely divided states like Ohio, which Republican President Donald Trump won handily in 2016.

Still, the cast of characters caught up in the government’s bribery investigation reflects Ohio’s political complexities when it comes to Trump.

Householder is a Trump supporter whose caucus includes one member who refused to have her temperature taken before entering the Statehouse and another who urged the public not to get tested for COVID-19. He wore a mask for the first time in public Tuesday.

A political maverick who harbors ambitions to higher office, Householder has participated in conservative pushback against DeWine over his early aggressive moves against the coronavirus. The speaker backed legislation that would have undercut the DeWine administration’s power to enforce its virus-related health orders. DeWine vetoed the bill Friday.

Borges, on the other hand, has jumped ship on Trump. An ally for former Republican Gov. John Kasich, an outspoken Trump detractor expected to speak at the Democratic National Convention, Borges was recently censured by the GOP’s state central committee for helping launch a super PAC seeking votes for Biden over Trump this fall.

In her statement, Timken called on Borges to “stop lobbying and end all of his association with the efforts to assist former governor John Kasich and elect Joe Biden president.”