COLUMBUS (WCMH) — For the first time since five men were charged last year in a $61 million bribery scandal at the Ohio Statehouse, one of the accused is talking.
Matt Borges, a lobbyist and the former state Republican Party chairman, told NBC4 that he is not guilty of charges that have implicated five men, including former House Speaker Larry Householder.
“I think it’s important to make sure the other side of the story — the truth of this story gets out there — and really the only person who can tell it is me,” Borges said in asserting that he did not accept bribes or launder money in support of House Bill 6, a bailout of two nuclear power plants operated by FirstEnergy.
The others accused in the scandal are lobbyist Neil Clark, who has since died by suicide; and political operatives Juan Cespedes and Jeffrey Longstreth, both of whom pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges.
Federal prosecutors arrested the five last July.
Borges said that day started for him with a knock on his door at 6 a.m. It was the FBI.
“They ask me to step all the way outside, handcuff me,” he said. “They never read me my rights and wouldn’t tell me what was happening.”
He was taken to the U.S. Marshals office.
“One of the first things I saw when I looked to my left was Larry Householder sitting in a jail cell.”
Eventually all five were in the same holding cell, allowing them to talk to one another before questioning began.
“None of the things that have happened procedurally have made any sense sort of from the way the government handled this,” Borges said. “One would assume given the people who were in that room — and we were all essentially agreeing with each other — this must have something to do with House Bill 6.”
Borges finally was able to read the sealed indictment that detailed an alleged Householder-led enterprise funneling $61 million in bribe money to ensure the FirstEnergy bailout would live and an opposing ballot initiative would die.
“I’ve never once tried to deny that I was a vendor working on a project that was specific to my client that was FirstEnergy Solutions at the time — that is now Energy Harbor,” he said.
Borges does admit to launching a new lobbying firm just in time to accept FirstEnergy as a well-paying first client.
And here is where federal prosecutors say the law was broken: Money from FirstEnergy was sent through a fund allegedly controlled in secret by Householder but set up publicly as a nonprofit called Generation Now that was supposed to be working on a social welfare cause.
Generation Now was taking in millions. Some allegedly ended up with the five accused, and some was used to lobby for and promote House Bill 6.
Borges insists spending money for a legislative campaign is legal.
“It really would have been helpful if other people had done what I had done and actually read the regulations, read the statutes and know that what Generation Now was doing with regard to support of House Bill 6 does fit the IRS’s own definition of what a social welfare organization is,” he said.
Borges said he was a legal lobbyist, just one of dozens of vendors hired to promote House Bill 6.
“They were doing exactly what I was doing, legitimate purpose to defend a law on behalf of our client,” he said.
But the federal indictment said Householder and the other defendants personally profited.
The indictment said more than $1 million went through Borges’ lobbying firm. He said that’s legal.
“Keep in mind, we were working on an issue that if we were successful would help a company that stood to make hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, and so pricing our services to allow them to stay in business was important for us to do in an appropriate way,” he said.
That’s appropriate, he said, for routine lobbying.
“There is none and there will never be any evidence that I was involved in any kind of quid pro quo or any kind of agreement or any kind of understanding,” Borges said. “There are no conversations that I was part of about how money was going to go back and forth between FirstsEnergy and Generation Now.
“I knew none of those things.”
But Borges does have a theory on why he was targeted.
“They were very aware that I was working on a PAC for Joe Biden, as a Republican for Biden, a high-profile Republican for Biden, and they wanted to shut that down.”