COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Speaker of the Ohio House Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) is being sued by three members of his party.
Reps. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton), Derek Merrin (R-Monclova), and Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) are suing Stephens and Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Township) over campaign finance account disputes.
The complaint, which can be read below, was filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
“I expect this case to eventually be dismissed as it’s without merit,” Representative DJ. Swearingen (R-Huron) said.
“The Ohio Revised Code is crystal clear, and facts are on our side,” Merrin said.
In January, there was a split among Republican for speaker of the Ohio House, Stephens ultimately ended up winning in a surprise upset, beating out Merrin, who was originally poised to win the position.
When Stephens won the vote, the power to control millions in campaign funds from the Ohio House Republican Alliance Campaign Committee was also in the air. At the start of the year, Stephens maintained that he is the leader of the Republican Party — because of his role as speaker — and therefore controls the money. But, a majority of Republicans elected Plummer as chair of the campaign committee in a caucus vote that Merrin said all GOP members were invited to.
The complaint cites the Ohio Revised Code, which states, “Each legislative campaign fund shall be administered and controlled in a manner designated by the caucus.”
Stephens called the lawsuit “frivolous.”
Stephens and LaRe issued the following joint statement:
“Frankly, this lawsuit is nothing more than the desperate antics of a handful of self-promoting individuals who seem to be more interested in filing baseless lawsuits than they are in defeating Issue 1 to protect innocent lives and defend our conservative family values.Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens and Rep. Jeff LaRe
We find it convenient that after the hard work of our Republican colleagues raising significant funds, drawing unanimously approved maps, and passing one of the most conservative budgets where we lowered income taxes for hard-working Ohioans and streamlined taxes for businesses, the only thing they have managed to do is to file this lawsuit.
Their actions amount to nothing but a petty distraction from the real work being done to support the well-being of their fellow Ohioans and the Republican Party they claim to represent.”
“These are Republicans fighting with Republicans about who controls their campaign finance funds based on the fact that the state statute is a little bit vague,” Ohio State University Professor Christopher McKnight Nichols said. “This is fairly unprecedented.”
But Swearingen said the time for this lawsuit has “come and gone.”
“After ten months of members raising money, contributing those funds to the caucus account, having fundraisers, and now to have this claim coming out of left field to say ‘that’s our money,’ it’s really laughable,” he said.
The complaint alleges that Stephens and LaRe have “falsely” maintained control of funds despite the caucus voting others as chair: “Jason Stephens has self-proclaimed himself as leader of the Ohio House Republican Caucus and claimed to be in control of the OHRA fund.”
The complaint asks that “the unauthorized expenditures made by Jason Stephens and/or Jeff LaRe in the sum of $284,153.94 and any additional expenditures since the July 31, 2023, finance report be personally reimbursed to the OHRA fund.” The money spent has mostly gone to legal, campaign and fundraising consulting.
“The individuals on the lawsuit haven’t raised a dime [for OHRA],” Swearingen said. “My first impression of this is — you’re just trying to steal from the Republican caucus money that you didn’t raise.”
In a statement, attorney Lisa Ferguson, who is representing the plaintiffs and is Ferguson’s mother, said, “The Ohio House Republican Alliance, through its elected leaders, Representatives Phil Plummer, and Derek Merrin, as well as caucus member Representative Ron Ferguson, filed suit in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to enforce the requirements of Ohio law as it relates to the appropriate administration of the caucus campaign committee. The Complaint speaks for itself, and the plaintiffs will not discuss pending litigation in the media at this time.”
“The suit seems to suggest that for some of these players the stakes are very high here,” Nichols said. “Who has authority? At its most essential level, this lawsuit is about a group of Republican lawmakers trying to fight with Jason Stephens over the authority he has over the funds that can be allocated by the party but also the authority he has as House speaker, which is pretty significant.”
Swearingen said their choice for representation “speaks volumes to the merits of their claims.” He said Ohioans should not be worried though about work moving forward in the Ohio House. He cites the state budget’s passage as an example of work continuing, despite the in-fighting.
“The work speaks for itself, and I think Ohioans should look at that and ignore some individuals who want to make it about them as opposed to the issues that matter to Republicans,” Swearingen said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the complaint, of how well written it is and how factual it is and how it shines a light on this section of the code,” Merrin said. “So, we are really proud to have her representing us.”