My life with Larry Householder
A view of recent events from the person who served as Householder’s lawyer for two years beginning in 2004
There's a pretty good chance that if you were accused of running a criminal enterprise out of your office, you'd be out of a job within an hour of the accusation. But then, of course, you're not Larry Householder, who headed into work at the General Assembly for nearly a year after being indicted for allegedly taking $60 million in bribes over the course of what has been characterized as the biggest public corruption case in the country, and what is certainly the biggest corruption case in Ohio history. Householder's days as a public servant ended last week, however, when the House voted 75-21 to expel him.
When you look at the circumstances surrounding Householder, it shouldn't be all that surprising that even a Republican-dominated House kicked him to the curb. Householder's one-time co-defendants, political operative Jeff Longstreth and lobbyist Juan Cespedes, pleaded guilty and are likely helping the government make its case against Householder. The other co-defendant in the case, legendary lobbyist Neil Clark, died by suicide in March. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but the vibe surrounding this case is not the type that bodes very well for someone in Householder's position, and it's not a shock that even a number of Republicans took the opportunity to distance themselves from their former leader.
Still, I was personally surprised at Householder's ouster because, from 2004 until 2006, I had a front row seat from which to watch him survive that which should not have been politically survivable, and part of me kinda figured he'd manage it again somehow. Back then, I was Larry Householder's lawyer.
In 2004, the FBI launched an investigation into allegations that Householder and two of his top aides traded legislation for contributions and took kickbacks from vendors. The probe was prompted by an anonymous nine-page memo containing these accusations, which was dropped on the doorstep of then-Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was a political enemy of Householder’s and a presumed rival in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. Blackwell turned the memo over to the U.S. Attorney's office, which turned it over to the FBI. Householder hired my boss, the late William C. Wilkinson, to defend him. Wilkinson, in turn, assigned me to handle most of the duties in that case.
I don't actively practice law anymore, but I'm still licensed to do so if I want, and even though I haven't spoken to Householder for close to 15 years now, I still have ethical obligations prohibiting me from revealing client confidences, so I won't be doing that here. But I can say that my time as his lawyer was interesting. And while I am not able to talk about many of those interesting things, one thing that I can talk about is just how thoroughly Householder believed that he would find a way out of trouble and back into power, regardless of what was going on around him.
In 2006, the Department of Justice closed the investigation after determining there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue criminal charges. But in 2004, there were no assurances that that's how it would all end up. A standard bit of legal advice to a public figure in such circumstances would be to lay low, but Householder made a different choice. Term limited out of the Legislature, he decided to run for the job of Auditor of Perry County.
It was not a glamorous gig. Certainly a huge step down from Speaker of the House, where he was, arguably, the most powerful man in Ohio. At the time, Householder was accused of merely scrambling for a job — any job — but I can tell you that he was genuinely convinced that the storm would pass and that, come 2006, he'd be in the clear to run for governor, which was his well-known long term plan before the federal investigation began. He knew it in his bones, in ways that even the people he hired to zealously defend him were in no way certain, and he believed that spending two years as a county auditor would help make that possible.
The embattled Householder barely won that Auditor's race — I had to fend off an election contest for him to be confirmed the winner — and he didn't end up running for governor, as the DOJ didn't formally drop the investigation until after the deadline to file to run passed. But his plan remained alive for much longer than anyone thought it would. As did his political career which, almost miraculously, returned him to the Speaker's chair in 2019.
I offer none of this as a defense of Householder, or to what he is currently accused of, the details of which I know no better than any other person who can read about it in the paper. I offer it because, as Householder stood before the House last week and vowed to defeat the effort to remove him and to beat the criminal charges against him, a lot of people I know characterized it as false bravado. As an exercise of a man who knows he's screwed but who is doing what he can to save face.
Based on my time with Householder, I don't believe that's true. I believe that he truly believes he'll get out from under these criminal charges and that he'll once again bide his time, return to power, vanquish his enemies and resume his march to whatever it is he considers to be his destiny. To be sure, that seems extraordinarily far-fetched given how much more dire his situation is now than it was back in 2004, but I do think he believes that.
I write a lot about politics and politicians. I've worked with and for a lot of politicians. Because of that, I've been asked on occasion if I'd ever consider running for office. I've momentarily considered the idea on occasion, but have quickly dismissed it as ridiculous. Not because I don't think I would be a decent public servant, but because I simply do not think my brain is wired the way politicians' brains are wired.
I don't think one must be wired like Householder in order to be successful in that sphere — indeed, based on the current charges pending against him, it seems rather inadvisable to be wired like he is — but on some level, to be truly successful in that world, you have to be a bit different than your average person. You have to process information differently. You may even have to process reality differently.