Ohio bribery scandal has Arizona connection

Meghan Cox. Photo via Facebook

An Arizona political consultant has connections to a blockbuster bribery case involving the speaker of Ohio’s House of Representatives, though she hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing.

According to a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Columbus, Ohio, an energy company paid nearly $61 million in bribes to Republican state Rep. Larry Householder, who allegedly used some of the money to elect allies and secure his bid for House speaker. In exchange, federal prosecutors allege that Householder pushed through legislation giving a $1.3 billion bailout to two of the company’s nuclear plants that were in financial trouble.

Opponents launched a citizen referendum campaign to send the bailout package to the ballot, where voters would have an opportunity to reject it. Householder and his allies counterattacked by paying petitioners for the referendum campaign, which had 60 days to collect 265,000 signatures, not to work or to switch sides.

As part of that effort, Householder’s operation hired Arizona’s Lincoln Strategy Group, the Daily Beast reported in a subscription-only article on Thursday. 

The criminal complaint against Householder and his allies includes a text message exchange between an unnamed signature collected and a woman who identifies herself as Meghan, asking if the petitioner is still working for the referendum campaign and offering $2,500 “to sign on with our team today.”

When the petitioner balks at her offer, Meghan tells the person, “If you aren’t interested in my offer – no worries. Thank you.” The petitioner then questioned her ethics and alleged that her conduct was illegal, though it’s unclear what law the person was accusing her of breaking. The criminal complaint doesn’t elaborate or indicate that federal prosecutors agreed.

Meghan’s phone number and the company she identified herself as working for are redacted in the complaint. The complaint refers to Meghan as “Contractor 1” and her company as “Petition Services Co 2.”

But the Daily Beast reported that an unredacted version of the texts, which was filed in federal court last year as part of a civil suit brought by the anti-bailout campaign, identified her as Meghan Cox, a partner at Tempe-based Lincoln Strategy Group. 

The federal complaint filed this week states that Petition Services Co. 2 received $600,000 from Householder’s operation. The complaint also states that Neil Clark, a lobbyist and advisor to Householder who was one of the five people indicted, had 45 contacts with Contractor 1 after a September 2019 dinner party where he outlined the efforts to subvert the referendum campaign.

The criminal complaint doesn’t accuse Cox of any wrongdoing, and her attorney, Kory Langhofer, said neither she nor anyone else at Lincoln Strategy Group was aware of any of the criminal activities alleged in the case.

“The things that gave rise to the complaint didn’t come across Lincoln’s desk,” he said.

Langhofer also noted that blocking campaigns, in which opponents of a ballot measure hire away petitioners to prevent a ballot measure from collecting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, are common political activities and are perfectly legal.

“Blocking campaigns have been a part of ballot measure politics for 50 years in 26 different states. It’s never before been suggested that a blocking campaign is a crime, and I don’t read the complaint to suggest that here,” Langhofer said. “The charges are based on bribery and not protected First Amendment campaign activities.”

The complaint states that Householder and his allies paid for petitioners’ airfare home from Ohio and gave them each $2,500 to leave the anti-bailout campaign and provide information about the campaign, paying half up front and half after proving that they’d used the airfare to fly home. 

The referendum campaign, Ohioans Against Corporate Bailouts, failed to collect enough signatures by the October deadline and officially called it quits in January after pulling the plug on a lawsuit aimed at getting for the courts to grant it more time to collect signatures.

Jeremy Duda
Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”