Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder held a closed-door meeting with members of his Republican caucus this week to address allegations in an anonymous memo circulating around the Statehouse that he and top aides had collected kickbacks from vendors.
Householder strenuously denied the allegations. "The anonymous memo is nothing but rumors, innuendo, half-truths and outright lies,'' he told reporters.
The fact that they were contained in an unsigned document assembled by a self-described "cabal of concerned insiders,'' and that the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that in two months of investigation it had been unable to confirm most of the allegations, does indeed diminish their credibility.
But Householder's reputation for strong-arm politics is such that there are plenty of people in Columbus who would weep no tears to see him on the receiving end for a change. And that reputation helps argue for an investigation by the proper authorities -- if only to clear Householder's name.
There's been no shortage of complaints about the speaker's aggressive approach to the electoral process. Among the recent examples:
The Columbus Dispatch has reported that lobbyists who contributed to Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery were pointedly warned to give equally to Householder ally Jim Petro, the state attorney general. Ohio's chief elections officer, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (who, like Montgomery and Petro, is a contender for the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination) is investigating those allegations.
Blackwell is also investigating allegations of undue influence in a hotly contested primary race for the Ohio Senate in the 14th District just east of Cincinnati. Householder is openly backing Rep. Jean Schmidt of Miami Township against another member of the GOP House caucus, Rep. Tom Niehaus of New Richmond, for the seat being vacated by term-limited Senate President Doug White.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that two of Householder's top aides, fund-raiser Kyle Sisk and political adviser Brett Buerck, were offered bonuses if they could persuade Niehaus to drop out of the race and avoid a contested primary. The newspaper also reported that Householder personally made a telephone call to a lobbyist suggesting a campaign contribution to Schmidt (who won the primary by about 60 votes out of 33,700 cast; a recount is pending).
Perhaps all this is nothing more than sour grapes. Even so, Householder -- and everyone else involved in what is already shaping up as an exceptionally nasty election season -- should understand there are lines that ought not be crossed. Contributors, even if they're lobbyists, deserve the assurance that they can give to candidates of their choice without getting leaned on by people who hold offices of public trust. If that sentiment seems naïve, consider what a sorry commentary it is on the state of political life in Ohio these days.