After months of primarily fielding reporter questions through text messages, state Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) sat down with both The Athens NEWS and The Athens Messenger for a rare in-person interview Wednesday where he provided the most extensive public account to date of his thoughts on what’s been dubbed by federal investigators as the largest public corruption scandal in state history.
Edwards, who previously said in a statement that the July arrest of his former boss and personal friend former Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives Rep. Larry Householder (R-Glenford) came as a “complete surprise,” said Wednesday that he first got word of the former speaker’s arrest through a 6 a.m. phone call from Jonathon L. McGee, the House’s chief of staff and majority legal counsel, who instructed Edwards to put on a suit and get to Columbus the morning the FBI shared its partial findings of an ongoing investigation into Householder’s central involvement in what’s been described as a $60 million racketeering scheme.
Edwards, who served as House majority whip on Householder’s leadership team (he’s still majority whip, but under different leadership), said he, McGee and those close to them were learning of the allegations levied against Householder by the federal government as the media reported them. Beyond that, he said, they were in the dark.
News of Householder’s arrest, along with his four accomplices, including lobbyists and mainstays in state politics such as former state GOP leader Matt Borges and Neil Clark, and the many developments that followed roiled the chamber, dominated the state’s public affairs news cycle and prompted Gov. Mike DeWine and experts to say it tarnished public confidence in House Bill 6, the legislation at the center of the scheme, and state government at large.
Edwards said he’s worked in the past with all of the men who were indicted in connection to the FBI’s investigation and that he even knew some of them personally. But the state representative maintained that he was wholly unaware of their alleged criminal connections described in the federal affidavit filed against them.
Edwards called the revelation “eye opening” that Borges, an outspoken opponent of President Donald Trump, was working in coordination with Householder, an adamant Trump supporter.
And despite regular contact with Householder, his staff and other Statehouse aides in-the-know, Edwards again denied any prior knowledge of Householder’s scheme to take tens of millions of dollars from First Energy to influence legislation that ultimately bailed out two Ohio nuclear plants and Householder’s efforts to defeat a ballot initiative that aimed to foil his plans.
“To be quite frank, I’m around a lot of aides, I’m around a lot of other members, I’m around a lot of people who work on the official side in the House, I can confidently say I don’t think any of them knew,” Edwards said.
He continued, “Not to say some of them didn’t, I can’t speak for every single one of them, but I’m very confident in the sense of saying I was very close with them and I know that if some of them knew, I felt like I would know. And I know that I didn’t know,” he said.
While Edwards’ name doesn’t explicitly appear in any of the documents linked to the scandal, The federal affidavit filed against Householder and his accomplices, collectively referred to as “The Enterprise,” describes their successful attempts to help elect members who would comprise “Team Householder.” Those on the team were either wittingly or unwittingly instrumental in the enterprise’s alleged scheme to pass House Bill 6.
Federal investigators uncovered a document from enterprise member Jeff Longstreth — Householder’s longtime political strategist — that describes a proposed list of individuals to comprise Householder’s leadership team should he win the speakership.
Those on that list include “Speaker of The House, Speaker Pro Tempore, Majority Floor Leader, Assistant Majority Leader, Majority Whip, and Assistant Majority Whip,” according to the FBI’s affidavit. “After Householder was elected speaker in 2019 all of the individuals, except for one, became part of Householder’s leadership team. (The exception was a representative who did not support Householder for Speaker).”
According to House voting records, Edwards both supported Householder for speaker and voted to pass House Bill 6.
Edwards said Wednesday that Householder never approached him to discuss a potential leadership team prior to his election as House speaker. He said it was never clear to him prior to the election that Householder may have wanted to select him for a potential leadership team should he win the speakership.
After Householder became speaker, he said, they met in the speaker’s office where Householder personally asked Edwards which leadership position he would like.
“I told him I wanted one of the top two positions (speaker pro tempore or majority floor leader). He told me I was too young and I needed to start lower than that. Him and I didn’t speak for a period of time after that,” he said.
Edwards, who at one point in the interview said he read most of the affidavit then later said he hadn’t seen the mention within it of Longstreath’s proposed leadership team for Householder, wouldn’t say whether he believed Householder and the enterprise members sought to handpick him for a leadership position.
“I have no idea. How would I comment on something I have nothing to do with? I have no idea what these other people wanted,” he said.
As the conversation wore on, Edwards seemed to become irritated talking about the scandal, as he believed it has little to do with his campaign or re-election bid, despite the fact that it, in part, has tarnished in the eyes of many the reputation of a chamber that he helps run.
In August, House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) called on Edwards and other members of the Householder-appointed Republican leadership team to resign from their positions in an effort to “clearly demonstrate our resolve to start anew,” as the caucus struggled to earn back confidence following the arrest and indictment of Householder, who still holds office despite being ousted as speaker.
Edwards denied the speaker’s request, saying that he saw no reason to step down from his role as majority whip, a position he was elected to unanimously.
He maintained Wednesday that the scandal had nothing to do with him, despite working intimately with Householder over the past two years.
“I think it’s something that involves other people. I mean, we can talk about John Becker’s impeachment proceedings (against DeWine) if you want to talk about that. I mean, there’s all kinds of crazy stuff going on that I’m just not associated with, similar to this,” Edwards said.
He indicated he instead wished to discuss the policy outlined within House Bill 6, which he repeatedly praised, rather than the allegedly corrupt methods through which it was passed.
State campaign finance records show that First Energy’s PAC gave $5,000 to Edwards’ campaign the day before the 2018 general election when he won re-election, though the energy company also financially supported him in the past with donations that exceed the amount given to him that year.
And while some members of the legislature are giving First Energy campaign donations to charity or other causes, Edwards said he wouldn’t follow suit because the money was donated to his campaign perfectly legally.
“I know that I have done nothing wrong and so I’m not going to go out and feel the need to go do something with money that I know came to me legally,” he said.
Asked about the principle of taking money from a company under investigation by the FBI for allegedly illegally influencing policymaking, Edwards dodged the question and said First Energy is innocent until proven guilty.
Edwards, who voted to remove Householder as speaker in July but didn’t support opening the floor for debate on expelling him from the body, said despite everything he’s still friendly with the former speaker.
“I’ll openly admit I still consider Larry Householder a friend. Am I upset by him and some of his actions? Yeah, absolutely, but I think he deserves an untainted day in court and we’ll find out what happens,” he said.
Peters is the associate editor of The Athens NEWS.