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We asked five people what they will be watching for in the Householder trial

Former House Speaker Larry Householder. (AP)
Former House Speaker Larry Householder. (AP)
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It’s been called the biggest government corruption scandal in Ohio history.

Now, two and-a-half years after indictments were handed down against former House Speaker Larry Householder and ex-Ohio Republican Chairman Matt Borges on what prosecutors say was a $60 million-plus bribery scheme, a jury trial is scheduled to start Friday in a Cincinnati federal courtroom. Both men have pleaded not guilty.

Akron-based FirstEnergy essentially has acknowledged giving millions to groups controlled by Householder, in exchange for the Perry County Republican pushing a $1 billion-plus bailout known as House Bill 6 for its two Ohio nuclear power plants.

ABC 6 On Your Side asked several who have closely followed this case what questions they hope to see answered in the trial, which may last a month.

Gov. Mike DeWine: What did he know and when did he know it?

"There are a lot of parallels between what FirstEnergy did to influence the governor and what they did to influence Larry Householder, who of course is now on trial," said Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute.

Like many, Anderson is eager to see whether more light is shed on the role played by GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. Anderson also would like to hear a total on how much FirstEnergy secretly spent to support their election in 2018.

He also hopes to pick up hints on whether fired FirstEnergy executives and lobbyists will be (or already have secretly been) changed with crimes. And while the Householder case focuses on payments to pass legislation in Ohio, he wonders if prosecutors are looking into FirstEnergy’s dark money flowing to a nonprofit aligned with then-President Donald Trump, as well as lobbying Trump administration officials for federal bailout.

Not surprisingly, Ohio Democratic Chair Liz Walters also will have her ears attuned to mention of DeWine's role:

Really what we want is full accountability. I’m not a lawyer. But I hope the results of this case is accountability for anyone who broke the law, up to and including the governor if it was him."

While neither DeWine nor Husted have been connected to the criminal portion of this case, their fingerprints are all over FirstEnergy’s efforts to bail out the nuclear power plants. DeWine and Husted have repeatedly said they had no involvement in the actions probed by federal authorities - although documents show they worked closely in private meetings with executives of FirstEnergy, received campaign contributions from them - and DeWine chose a highly paid FirstEnergy crony as Ohio’s top utility regulator.

DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney said the governor has supported nuclear power for decades so it should come as no surprise he strongly backed the bailout.

"It's as about as surprising as a Bengals fan wanting to buy playoff tickets now that they're making a playoff run," Tierney said.

He noted that neither DeWine nor Husted have been questioned or subpoenaed in the criminal case.

What is 'dark money' and why is it so important to this case?

Several others told ABC Six On Your Side that they want to hear more details about the role of dark money. That’s the moniker for campaign cash concealed from public view.

In a statement required by a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney's office, FirstEnergy officials acknowledged the crucial role of the hidden money, funneled through nonprofit groups that don't have to disclose their contributions or expenditures.

FirstEnergy Corp. used the ... mechanism to conceal payments for the benefit of public officials and in return for official action. FirstEnergy Corp. used (the) entities in this way because the law does not require disclosure of donors ... and there is no ceiling that limits the amount of expenditures that can be paid to a (nonprofit) entity for the purpose of influencing the legislative process."

The federal trial will focus on those secret transactions, which prosecutors say amounted to bribery.

"As alleged in the indictment, there’s no way they could have gotten away with this scheme or artifice without a dark money group," said David DeVillers, former U.S. attorney for southern Ohio who got indictments against Householder and Borges.

"If there’s nothing wrong going on, why are you hiding the money?"

Three others were indicted. Two of that trio have pleaded guilty (and at least one of them is set to testify during the trial). The third, super-lobbyist Neil Clark, died by suicide in Florida while wearing a re-elect DeWine shirt.

Ashley Brown, a former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio member, said the role hidden donations played in multibillion-dollar decisions is crucial to the public.

"I think it’s extremely important because it hides the identity of who’s contributing the money," he said.

Brown, now executive director of the Harvard Electricity Policy Group at Harvard University, said he also will be listening for a better explanation of why PUCO members apparently looked the other way while FirstEnergy peddled its deals.

Bribery? Or politics as usual?

Householder says he did nothing wrong since dark money is not only legal, it’s commonly used in political causes across the country.

DeVillers, asked where this indeed is just politics as usual in America these days, responded: "Well in a lot of ways I’d agree with that. But, you know, where do you end it?"

Catherine Turcer of the watchdog group Common Cause-Ohio says much is at stake in the upcoming federal proceedings.

"We have deep-seated corruption in Ohio. And we actually need to create greater transparency, whether it’s for ratepayers or taxpayers, so that Ohioans are not ripped off in the future," she said.

"We are at a point where we’re going to go into a trial about bribery, and really, the system is on trial as well."

No one disputes the basic facts about the flow of dark money from FirstEnergy to Householder’s control, so Turcer says the verdict on whether those multimillion-dollar payments constitute bribery will say a lot about whether public officials can be held accountable under that system.

"When you think about the kind of shenanigans, machinations that went on – they sure look like contemporary bribery. And we’re going to see whether in fact 12 jurors decide if that’s the case."

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