Juan Cespedes' Other Scandal

Ally Melnik
Juan Cespedes

On July 21, Juan Cespedes went from an obscure Columbus lobbyist to a player in what federal officials are calling the largest bribery scheme in Ohio history. According to the official criminal complaint, Cespedes served as a “key middleman” in former Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder’s alleged nearly $61 million racketeering conspiracy, where funds were funneled through the dark money group Generation Now to help pass House Bill 6 and secure Householder’s political power.

But this isn’t the first time Cespedes has found himself in the center of a front-page political scandal. In fact, he started his political life with an embarrassing incident while an Ohio State University student government leader—a brouhaha involving a limousine ride, a lavish dinner and thousands of purloined newspapers. 

On Feb. 5, 2001, the Lantern published a front-page story questioning the use of undergraduate student government funds—specifically a $2,250 stipend given to the former chief of staff of Ohio State’s USG, Keller Blackburn, by then-President Robert “B.J.” Schuerger and then-Vice President Cespedes. The money was allegedly given to Blackburn from the executive branch’s discretionary funds without approval of student senators in the form of two checks—one for $1,000 and another for $1,250—for his work during the summer, fall and winter quarters. 

However, the Lantern reported that on Dec. 14, 2000, the day both checks were cashed, 12 members of USG—including Blackburn, Cespedes and Schuerger—enjoyed an evening in Columbus eating at Mitchell’s Steakhouse, drinking Champagne and riding in a limousine. 

The day this story broke, about 10,000 copies of the Lantern were stolen from stands across campus. This forced the Office of Student Affairs to investigate whether USG officials misused funds and then tried to cover their tracks by disposing of the papers. 

About a week later on Feb. 13, The Columbus Dispatch reported that Schuerger asked for Blackburn and Cespedes to resign from their positions. Schuerger then accused Cespedes of leading the plot to remove the newspapers, to which Cespedes did not comment on. 

Two days later, OSU published an official news release summarizing the findings of the Student Affairs’ investigation. It was confirmed that not only did USG officials misuse discretionary funds, but they also lied to university officials about it and executed a plan to stop distribution of the Lantern’s story. 

The next day, Schuerger resigned as student government president. Schuerger also said to The Dispatch that he, Blackburn and Cespedes were three of eight students sanctioned for the misuse of funds. Of those eight, six were also cited for stealing and destroying the 10,000 copies of the Lantern

Despite the sanctions, Cespedes still graduated from Ohio State in 2002 with a degree in finance. After spending four years at the State Treasurer’s Office, Cespedes decided to form his own company with Schuerger in 2006. They first dubbed the company Empire Strategies, LLC, but changed the name a little over a month later to The Oxley Group, LLC. 

When asked in a Facebook message about his work with Cespedes in 2001 and The Oxley Group, Schuerger failed to respond. Cespedes also hasn’t responded to a message seeking comment. 

If you’ve been following the Householder scandal, The Oxley Group might sound familiar. That’s because a subsidiary of what the affidavit calls “Company A”—believed to be Akron-based utility company FirstEnergy Corp.—hired The Oxley Group, specifically Cespedes, in 2018 to attain government funding after the subsidiary filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While hired, Cespedes received $227,000 from Company A and an additional $600,000 from Generation Now. No allegations have been made against Oxley Group co-principal Schuerger. 

The Oxley Group’s website has been taken down—website archives show it last working in 2019, although the Secretary of State’s website lists the company as still active—and both Cespedes and Schuerger lobbied for Energy Harbor Corp., a spinoff from FirstEnergy, according to the Ohio Lobbying Activity Center. 

And on July 30, a federal grand jury indicted Cespedes, Householder and the three other officials arrested. If convicted, the men will face up to 20 years in prison and have to forfeit up to $60 million and any other interest accrued illegally, according to the indictment.


Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.