Analysis: Larry Householder testified in his own defense. Jury's out on if that was a good idea
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, facing prison time in the biggest public bribery and corruption trial in Ohio's history, may well be having second thoughts about the wisdom of testifying on his own behalf.
It was fine on Wednesday when Householder, in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black, faced a jury of his peers and put on a charm offensive worthy of a folksy good ol' boy from Glenford, Ohio, population 187.
A country boy just doing his best for the people of Ohio, innocent of the ways of the world and unaware of any skullduggery going on around him.
That view of Larry Householder held up exactly one day. It ended Thursday when Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter got her turn to cross-examine the former House speaker.
Glatfelder filleted him like an Ohio River catfish.
It was the high point of a trial that has been going on for weeks and is rumbling toward the finishing line for Household and his fellow defendant, former Ohio Republican Party chair Matt Borges, with closing arguments scheduled for Tuesday.
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When a criminal defendant takes the witness stand, the cross-examination often ends up being the most memorable part of the trial.
"That's what everybody waits for," said Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law. "That's the big show. The hot ticket. Everybody wants to see the cross-exam."
Testifying was a dice roll for Householder. It came up snake eyes.
On Wednesday, Householder told the jury he had no control over Generation Now, a nonprofit that received $60 million the prosecution says was a bribe from FirstEnergy Corp. to pass House Bill 6, bailout legislation for two financially troubled nuclear power plants the Cleveland-based utility owned.
The bribe money was to be used for two purposes: to help get Householder elected speaker and to try to scuttle a ballot issue to repeal House Bill 6.
Generation Now was run by Householder's top political adviser, Jeff Longstreth, who ended up pleading guilty to racketeering. Longstreth testified against Householder earlier in the trial; and he claimed Householder was at the heart of the bribery scheme.
Glatfelter's technique in cross-examining Householder was clever. First, she would ask him to recount his testimony from the day before — just to make certain it was fresh in the jury's mind — and then she would systematically pick his words apart, presenting evidence along the way that threw shade on nearly everything Householder had said in his own defense.
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On Householder's claim that he had no control of Generation Now, she managed to get him to skin-back much of what he had said the day before:
- He admitted that Generation Now existed to promote "issues important to me."
- He assisted Generation Now with fund-raising.
- He advised Generation Now staff on messaging.
- And his name appeared on an agenda for a Generation Now staff meeting.
Householder also denied having taken a $500,000 bribe from FirstEnergy which was used to pay down a court judgement against the coal company he owned, pay off his credit card debts, and make improvements to his home in Florida.
That, he said, was money from a friend he intended to pay back.
Glatfelter then walked the defendant through years of the state financial disclosure forms elected officials in Ohio are required to file each year, in which they list their sources of income and debts.
None of this money was listed in the forms.
Householder said he always had an attorney sign those financial disclosure statements and that "I've never looked at them."
I swear under oath. The dog ate my homework.
The cross-examination went on like this for hours.
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For nearly every assertion of innocence Householder delivered in his testimony, Glatfelter had an answer that shot holes in the defense of this self-described "old Appalachian boy" who loves the salt-of-the-earth folks he describes as "Bob and Betty Buckeye."
The man is entitled to a presumption of innocence. The jury may or may not decide otherwise.
But if the jury's answer is guilty, Larry Householder could end up ruing the day he decided to take the stand in his own defense.