FBI Raids, Canceled Sessions, No House Speaker: What's Going on in Ohio?

by | May 24, 2018

By Andrew J. Tobias

The dysfunction -- and possibly burgeoning scandal -- that's paralyzed the Ohio state legislature is worsening. But whether Republicans pay a political price for it in November remains to be seen.

The FBI's previously unclear interest in ex-Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger came into sharper focus on Wednesday morning as agents raided his Southwest Ohio home, along with a nearby storage facility owned by his former campaign treasurer. Rosenberger, who has denied wrongdoing, resigned abruptly from the legislature in April, shortly after he learned the FBI had been looking into his international travel with lobbyists.

Meanwhile, another potential federal investigation looms which also involves Columbus Republicans. Republican Ohio Auditor Dave Yost earlier this month announced he had contacted local and federal prosecutors after his office found the now-shuttered Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow might have fraudulently inflated its student-attendance data to get more state funding. The school's founder, William Lager, has given millions to Republicans in campaign contributions while receiving more than $1 billion in state funding since his school opened in 2000, years Republicans largely have held tight control of state government.

The Columbus Dispatch has reported the FBI also is interested in claims from a former employee that Lager gave employees extra money and directed them to use it to make campaign contributions, which if true, would be illegal.

This all occurs against the backdrop of the November 2018 election, when Ohioans will vote on a U.S. Senate seat, governor and other statewide offices, as well as a slew of state legislative races. In a midterm election when Republican President Donald Trump's national popularity is shaky at best, it's thought Democrats already will have some built-in advantages, even in a state Trump won decisively in 2016. Republicans, meanwhile, hold control of all three branches of state government.

"The biggest thing is that this dysfunction coming from the Statehouse is harming Ohioans," said Kathleen Clyde, a Democratic state representative who's running for Secretary of State. "It holds up important work of the people of Ohio such as predatory lending legislation and a bill to fund upgrades to voting equipment."

Ohio Republicans followed the raid of Rosenberger's house on Wednesday with a mix of fascination and disappointment and for some, nervousness over where it might be headed.

All the while, the Republican-controlled state legislature has been unable to pass any bills since Rosenberger's departure last month. State Rep. Kirk Schuring, a top Rosenberger lieutenant who's now serving as a temporary House speaker, on Wednesday canceled two more planned sessions amid uncertainty whether Rosenberger's preferred successor, State Rep. Ryan Smith, had the votes necessary to secure the job.

A faction of Republicans loyal to State Rep. Larry Householder, Smith's rival for the speaker's gavel next year, refuses to support anyone connected to Rosenberger, citing the investigation into Rosenberger.

In a news conference in Columbus, Smith refused to back down. He also said the drama surrounding the inter-party fight is harming the state legislature's official business, as well House Republicans' broader campaign efforts. State legislators typically by now have left Columbus for a summer recess so they can focus on their re-election campaigns.

"Every day it impacts us," Smith said. "We are not doing what we need to do what we're doing. We're focusing on the wrong things. We should be focusing on passing good legislation and focusing on that. Instead, we're fiddling around with things like this and wondering where we're going to go."

Jim Trakas, a Republican former state representative who's running for his old Cuyahoga County seat, compared the raid of Rosenberger's house to the 2008 FBI raid that announced the existence of an investigation into Cuyahoga County government. That raid didn't produce any charges for several years, but ultimately led to the conviction of dozens of government officials and contractors, and prompted voters to overhaul the county government's structure.

"This will be an unfolding drama," said Trakas, a former Cuyahoga County Republican Party chairman who's supportive of Householder. "All I can say is the next General Assembly and the next governor better be reformist, and mean it."

Democrats, meanwhile, pounced on the opportunity to call attention to the raid, as well the inability of Republicans to pick a leader among themselves. They hope the news will begin to sink in for average Ohioans, who may not follow state government particularly closely. Some Democratic representatives tried branding the impasse as a government "shutdown," like the times the federal government has closed over budgetary standoffs.

Richard Cordray, a Democratic former state attorney general who's running for governor, in a conference call with reporters tried to connect the problems with the state legislature to his Republican opponent, current Attorney General Mike DeWine.

"It is clear that our legislature has gone completely off the rails under one-party rule," Cordray said. "Running state government for those at the top who hire lobbyists and bankroll Republican campaigns has resulted in the dysfunction and corruption that has paralyzed state government and is hurting Ohio families. It needs to end."

In a statement, a DeWine campaign spokesman said only: "The people's business needs to get done and the House needs to elect a Speaker."

There are emerging parallels between current developments and 2006, the last time Ohio Democrats saw electoral success on the state level. That year, Democrats won the governor's office, a U.S. Senate seat, and three of the four other statewide offices. They were aided by an unpopular Republican president, as well as a scandal in state government that led to the imprisonment of Tom Noe, a top Republican operator, and misdemeanor ethics convictions of then-Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican. It all began with questions about a state contract Noe received to invest Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation funds in rare coins and other high risk or unconventional investment vehicles.

Democrats were able to take a scandal involving an esoteric topic and make it relevant to voters in part because of the efforts of Marc Dann, a colorful state senator from the Youngstown area, former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said Wednesday. Dann was swept into office as attorney general before he resigned in shame in 2008.

"He used his bully pulpit, the state senate office, to lift that issue up and gather the attention of those who would hold Tom Noe accountable," Redfern said. "I'm not sure that exists right now."

Redfern also said Ohio political media were more robust a decade ago, and were able to drive the investigation forward and publicize it through aggressive reporting.

"It's very similar... but here in 2018, you're already in an election year. Tom Noe went to trial and the investigation was complete with the prosecutor's office a year earlier than what's happening now," Redfern said.

Republicans, meanwhile, hope Ohioans will overlook the dysfunction in state government and view the improvement in the state's economy since Democrats ran state government between 2006 and 2010, during the throes of the Great Recession.

"Ohio cannot return to the days of double-digit unemployment, jobs fleeing the state and a drained rainy-day fund," Ohio Republican Party spokesman Blaine Kelley said in an email. "Under Republican leadership, Ohio's jobless rate is at a 17 year-low, more businesses are opening here than ever before, and families are taking home more money. Ohio is moving in the right direction and on November 6, Ohio voters will not allow Richard Cordray and the Democrats to take us backward."

A group of Republican-friendly business groups, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Farm Bureau and the Ohio Manufacturer's Association, on Tuesday called on Schuring and other House members to pick a leader.

"Our interest -- and we believe that of House members -- is that the Genreal Assembly take up the policy issues that will continue to support and improve Ohio's economy and the welfare of its citizens," the letter states. "Without a speaker -- and with the distracting controversy of electing one -- we risk timely progress."

Cleveland.com reporter Seth Richardson and Capitol Letter reporter Jeremy Pelzer contributed to this report

(c)2018 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland