Within American democracy, politicians incorporate aspects of stealth authoritarianism into every level of politics. Often, the most brazen political stunts are performed when eyes are pointed elsewhere. This is the case in the passing of Ohio’s House Bill 6, also known as HB6. What began as a bribery scheme between an Ohio legislator and a floundering energy company quickly evolved into a concentrated effort to suppress Ohio citizens’ right to a referendum, violating core democratic processes and harming Ohio’s citizens.
Before discussing the results and future implications of the passing of HB6, the story behind the passing of HB6 should be told. As renewable energy became cheaper following the passage of HB487 in 2008, fossil fuel companies like FirstEnergy realized that their share of the energy industry would decrease with time. Instead of modernizing and investing in clean energy, they decided to influence state politics into passing laws that were beneficial to them. Introducing: Larry Householder. Householder was once the GOP chair of the Ohio state legislature but quit politics after a federal corruption probe investigated him in 2006. He avoided indictment but began to claw his was back into politics after winning a seat again in 2016.
This is where the trouble begins. FirstEnergy wanted legislators to pass laws that would bail out their struggling energy business, and Householder wanted a team of legislators loyal to him that would help to push his agenda. In a match made in heaven, FirstEnergy offered Householder a $59 million slush fund to fund other candidates’ campaigns and get them elected to create a bloc of legislators dedicated to passing their coveted energy bailout bill. And it worked. During the 2018 elections, Householder helped to fund 21 campaigns all over Ohio, and many of them were elected. Step one complete.
With the help from his legislature loyalists, in January of 2019, Householder was lifted to Speaker of the House in the Ohio State Legislature. By April, his plan set in motion, Householder revealed House Bill 6 to the public. This bill was disguised as a nuclear bailout bill. It did offer bailout money to Ohio’s two nuclear power plants, but underneath that façade was the true purpose of the bill: to bail out Ohio coal and FirstEnergy Corp. The bill limited many of the statutes that the 2008 renewable energy bill introduced and increased utility prices for Ohioans across the state. By May, the bill had passed both houses and Governor Mike DeWine signed it into law. The plan had finally bore fruit. Everything went according to plan; until two wrenches were thrown into it.
Wrench number 1: Ohioans were generally unhappy that this bill had passed, and critic groups began to organize a signature campaign to bring the law to a referendum. Larry Householder and his supporters then organized ad campaigns claiming that signatures were helping Chinese financial interests in Ohio, attempting to play on fears of foreign intervention. More troublingly, his team began bribing signature gatherers with $2,500 and a one-way ticket home in exchange for stopping their gathering of signatures. This worked, and critics did not get enough signatures to move onto a referendum before the bill took effect in late October 2019.
Wrench number 2: the FBI had been gathering information on this whole operation and finished their undercover investigation in July 2020 and began initial arrests, including Householder himself. While funding campaigns with dark money is not technically illegal, Householder and Co. made one fatal error: they kept some of the money for themselves. And thus begins their undoing.
Now what does a simple bribery scandal have to do with subverting democracy? Householder and his loyalists, unwittingly or not, participated in underhanded tactics designed to subvert the will of Ohio citizens to serve the interests of a large corporation. Householder himself knowingly practiced several stealth authoritarianism tactics, like using dark money to avoid disclosing the large financial contributions given to him by FirstEnergy and blatantly bribing others to ensure that HB6 would not be brought to referendum. While the use of dark money is legal in the United States, using millions of dollars in an attempt to flood voters with harmful information about opponents while bolstering a candidate’s own position, especially in lower-level races like the Ohio House of Representatives, is shady at best. More illegally, he outright bribed signature gatherers to avoid having HB6 go to referendum, a clear violation of Ohio citizens’ right to said referendum. Bribing signature gatherers is barely even stealthy, and is what a dictator such as Peru’s former dictator Alberto Fujimori would do to suppress his citizenry. Scariest of all, if Householder had not taken some of the money for himself, he may have even gotten away with the whole thing.
The practice of taking corporate money to pass laws designed to only benefit those corporations is not even a remotely new occurrence, but in the context of modern society, is troubling. FirstEnergy paid Larry Householder to build a group of legislators to support him and his policies and then used him and his newfound posse to pass laws on their behalf. When they were caught, they furiously backpedaled, but the damage had been done. In fact, as of September 2022, HB6 remains in effect, charging Ohioans an estimated $1.7 billion to bail out floundering coal plants for the next 7 years. This bill was forced through using dirty, underhanded tactics, and even when the perpetrators were caught, the bill was not repealed.
This is not an isolated incident. A report by Grist, a nonprofit organization dedicated to climate justice, has detailed that similar scandals have broken in Illinois, South Carolina, and Arizona, with power companies bribing state legislators for subcontracts and laws authorizing the building of new power plants. This is a scary trend. Having corporations push laws that only benefit themselves at the expense of voting citizens can only be described as corporate authoritarianism. People do not vote in candidates with the expectation that they will be footing unnecessary costs and having their democratic rights trampled in a cover-up attempt. Ohio citizens, or citizens of any state, should not have to worry about their elected representatives selling them out at every opportunity. They should be able to trust that the representatives that they elect will do their best to serve them, as is their job to do.
The result of this entire mess? The only people truly hurt by this scandal have been the regular Ohio citizenry. Larry Householder’s trial has been set for January 2023 after a nearly 4 year long investigation by the FBI. He faces 20 years in prison, and FirstEnergy have been forced to pay $230 million, which is nothing compared to the $1.7 billion that Ohio citizens will have to pay over a 9 year period. Even though they were caught, FirstEnergy won. Ohio citizens continue to foot the bill (literally), and their subversion of democracy through bribery continues to turn a profit.