COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio Democrats want to eliminate a loophole in the state’s campaign finance law that helped former House speaker Larry Householder secretly cash in $60 million in illegal bribes.
Earlier this month, Reps. Bride Rose Sweeney (D-Cleveland) and Jessica Miranda (D-Forest Park) reintroduced House Bill 112, dubbed the Ohio Anti-Corruption Act, that would require nonprofits and other corporations who spend money on state elections to publicly disclose their donors.
Political candidates and committees must report their donors and expenditures, but Ohio law exempts limited liability companies and nonprofit organizations like 501(c)(4)s from doing so – a loophole that Householder, other former GOP officials and Akron-based FirstEnergy exploited to facilitate the largest corruption scheme in state history.
“To truly get at fairness, to get money out of politics and really have a fair playing ground, what this bill simply does is say, ‘If you are influencing Ohio’s elections, Ohioans deserve to know who you are,’” Sweeney said.
On March 9, Householder and former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges were convicted on federal racketeering charges for accepting a $60 million bribe from FirstEnergy to pass a $1.3 billion bailout bill for the power company’s nuclear plants in 2019 and squash a referendum effort against it.
Throughout the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that FirstEnergy funneled the bribe money to Generation Now, a 501(c)(4) “dark money group” secretly controlled by Householder. Like other 501(c)(4)s, Generation Now was not required to publicly report its funding sources.
“What if the FBI hadn’t been watching? What if they hadn’t been tipped off? What if people didn’t go to the FBI?” Sweeney said. “It is very possible that this ($60 million corruption scheme) would have never been uncovered because our laws protect these people.”
But Sweeney added that the use of dark money groups to covertly influence state elections is not isolated to Householder. “This is how politics works in Ohio,” she said.
Nonprofit organizations and LLCs would also be required to disclose information about their ownership if HB 112 is enacted, and U.S.-based companies with foreign ownership would be barred from election spending.
Twenty-six Democrats have signed on to the legislation, but with no Republican support, the bill faces an uphill battle in the General Assembly.
House Majority Floor Leader Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) said although he has yet to take a firm position on HB 112, he said in an email that 501(c)(4)s should not be required to disclose their donors. Ohio law sufficiently regulates nonprofits’ political advocacy and publicizing donor information could jeopardize Ohioans’ privacy, he said.
“Donors to C-4’s often wish to remain anonymous for fear of being doxed, boycotted, protested against, or otherwise bullied into sacrificing their free speech rights,” Seitz said. “Those are legitimate concerns.”
A Republican-led bill targeting dark money groups was introduced in February 2021 but never received a vote. The legislation would require nonprofits to disclose only the donations given to them for the purpose of influencing elections – but not donations for apolitical or social welfare purposes.
HB 112 awaits consideration from the House Government Oversight Committee.