In case you missed it… Ohio Republicans are desperately trying to distance themselves from indicted former Speaker Larry Householder — but in picking Bob Cupp to replace Householder, the Ohio House GOP has selected a new speaker who “was the subject of a judicial ethics complaint involving campaign contributions from FirstEnergy, one of his top donors and the company that allegedly bribed Householder,” according to new reporting by the investigative journalism nonprofit Sludge.
The report discusses Cupp’s time on the Ohio Supreme Court, which came to an end after he was defeated for re-election in 2012.
During his 2012 race, the Akron Beacon Journal endorsed Cupp’s opponent and called out his $20,300 in campaign contributions from donors connected to FirstEnergy. Cupp ultimately ruled in FirstEnergy’s favor.
Cupp also was one of the four state Supreme Court justices that approved the current legislative district maps, “which some have called … the most gerrymandered in the country,” as noted by the Statehouse News Bureau.
After Ohio’s House speaker was indicted for taking bribes from energy companies in what a U.S. attorney called “likely the largest bribery scheme ever perpetrated against the state of Ohio,” a new speaker with deep financial ties to the same energy companies has been appointed.
On July 30, Republicans elected Rep. Bob Cupp to replace indicted Larry Householder as the next speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. Cupp was first selected as speaker in a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus, and then publicly elected by an Ohio House vote of 55-38, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting no.
The energy companies accused of bribing Householder and funneling dark money to Generation Now, a Householder-controlled 501(c)(4) group, have been major donors to Cupp over his career, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Cupp has faced his share of ethics allegations stemming from his energy industry donations. During his unsuccessful 2012 re-election race for Supreme Court, Cupp’s Democratic challenger, retired judge William O’Neill, filed a formal complaint alleging that Cupp and another justice, Republican-appointed Terrence O’Donnell, violated Canon 1 of the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct by taking campaign contributions from a party of interest in a case.
In the 2012 case in question, an attorney participated who was representing power provider Ohio Edison, which was owned by FirstEnergy, the Akron-based energy company at the center of the Householder bribery scandal. Two weeks after oral arguments, FirstEnergy’s PAC donated $6,300 to each of the re-election campaigns of Cupp and O’Donnell. Four weeks later, Cupp and O’Donnell joined a majority opinion favoring Ohio Edison in the case, O’Neill’s formal grievance detailed.
Catherine Turcer, executive director of the non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group Common Cause Ohio, told Sludge that Ohio has a long history of justices hearing the cases of their campaign contributors and not stepping away. “It’s fairly unusual for justices to recuse themselves, and when they do, we don’t know why they recuse themselves,” Turcer said. “In 2012, [then-candidate William] O’Neill put it out there: he made it clear that he wanted to focus on judicial independence, not receive campaign contributions, and identified it as a problem.
“Just about everyone would say it doesn’t make sense to allow participants to give money to a referee in the middle of the game, it seems so incongruous—it’s hard to understand it’s even possible that we let judges hear the cases of their major donors,” Turcer said.
While Cupp did not support now-indicted Larry Householder for House speaker in 2019, he did vote in favor of Householder’s FirstEnergy bailout bill, HB 6, which passed the Ohio House by a vote of 51-38 in July 2019 and was quickly signed into law by Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine. Shortly after the vote, emails obtained by The Columbus Dispatch revealed that Cupp had not been eager to publicize a private flight at taxpayers’ expense that had been arranged for him and two other representatives to make it back from a conference in Chicago to vote on the bailout, though the flight ended up being canceled the night before. HB 6, which has not yet been repealed, would send a billion dollars from Ohio ratepayers to subidize two nuclear energy plants operated by the company formerly known as FirstEnergy, now called Energy Harbor, through 2026. Householder was unanimously removed from office after his indictment for taking bribes from FirstEnergy through a dark money group on July 30.
Turcer points out that these major energy companies, which have previously used dark money spending to influence elections, have been big donors not only to statehouse candidates but also to Ohio Supreme Court candidates. “It’s not just one bad company, it’s ongoing donations to craft utilities policies that benefit the utilities and hurt consumers,” Turcer said. To mitigate the effects of dark money mailers and xenophobic campaign ads, Turcer said, the Ohio government should “require disclosures of independent expenditures spent on ads, identifying the top three donors. Get to the original source of payment of ads.”
Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a co-author of that report, told Sludge, “Ohio’s Supreme Court elections have a history of campaign contributions from companies with a big financial stake in the court’s decisions.”