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Ohio political operatives to plead guilty in bribery probe

Two Ohio political operatives plan to plead guilty to charges that they conspired as part of what another defendant called an “unholy alliance” aimed at bailing out two aging Ohio nuclear power plants court documents show.

Former Republican House Speaker Larry Householder and four others are charged with racketeering for their roles in the alleged scheme, under a law federal prosecutors typically use to charge gang members.

The five are accused of shepherding $60 million in energy company money for personal and political use in exchange for passing a legislative bailout of two aging nuclear plants and then derailing an attempt to place a rejection of the bailout on the ballot.

A federal court docket showed that “plea agreements” were filed Thursday for defendants Jeffrey Longstreth, a longtime Householder political adviser, and Juan Cespedes, a lobbyist described by investigators as a “key middleman."

Mark Collins an attorney for Cespedes, said he couldn't immediately comment ahead of a court hearing. A message was left for Longstreth's attorney seeking comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office said information would be provided after a hearing.

Householder was removed from his leadership post in a unanimous vote following his arrest earlier this year. He pleaded not guilty last month and maintains his innocence. Charges are also still pending against Matt Borges, a former Ohio Republican Party chairman, and Neil Clark, a longtime Statehouse lobbyist.

An attorney for Borges has previously called the charges against him “wrong and unfortunate.” An attorney for Clark said he did not “see any culpability” in the case.

The government says the energy company money was funneled through Generation Now, a group created to promote “social welfare” under a provision of federal tax law that shields its funding source or spending. The government says part of the scheme involved bribing or otherwise discouraging signature gatherers from doing their job. Generation Now is charged as a corporation in the case.

An 82-page criminal complaint makes clear the energy company is FirstEnergy and its affiliates. FirstEnergy’s CEO has said he and the company did nothing wrong.

In a recorded conversation in September 2019, Borges described the relationship between Householder and the energy company as “this unholy alliance,” according to the July 21 complaint that lays out the details of the alleged scheme.

Lawmakers from both parties have pledged to repeal the bailout and to pass legislation requiring disclosure of money contributed to and spent by dark money groups. However, hearings to repeal the bailout ended this fall without resolution.

As recently as Wednesday, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine called on lawmakers to repeal the bailout during the Legislature's lame duck session following next month's election.

On Tuesday, two Ohio cities sued to block the bailout law from taking effect in January.

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