Speaker snared in Ohio bribery probe liked to play long game

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Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, center, leaves the federal courthouse after an initial hearing following charges against him and four others alleging a $60 million bribery scheme Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tension was thick in the air. After 10 consecutive votes in which another man had garnered more support than Larry Householder's favored candidate to be the next Ohio House speaker, Householder leaned back quietly in his chair, arms confidently propped behind his head.

As usual, he was playing the long game.

The Republican now accused in a $60 million federal bribery probe had contributed to a monthslong impasse over the speakership that brought Ohio lawmaking to a standstill in 2018 and left a trail of intimidated, disheartened representatives in its path.

The previous House speaker had resigned amid scandal. Householder wanted a proxy in the job until he could run for the full two-year term himself a few months later. Even if his man lost now, though, he was counting votes and sizing up loyalties for the future as the roll was taken again and again.

The leading candidate, then-Rep. Ryan Smith, became speaker that day on the 11th vote. But Householder would take the job six months later with crucial support he had lined up — from Democrats. With promises of bipartisan cooperation, the master dealmaker had once again gotten what he wanted.

“Either over the last 18 years, this dais has gotten smaller or I have gotten larger,” Householder, who had put on a few pounds since last serving as speaker from 2001 to 2004, quipped in his slight southern Ohio drawl as he took the gavel.

His triumphant return had been achieved, a feat federal prosecutors now say was fueled by millions of dollars of bribe money funneled to Householder and his associates for the passage of a nuclear bailout bill he would champion soon after his ascendancy.

According to the criminal complaint, Householder and his associates spent the money to boost themselves politically and personally, to stage often nasty campaigns to elect Householder loyalists, to buy votes for the bailout bill and to poison subsequent efforts to repeal it.