Facing an FBI investigation into his overseas travel and a nasty leadership fight to succeed him that is ripping at his caucus, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger said Tuesday he is resigning from office.
"I believe my actions as speaker have been both ethical and lawful, however, I understand the nature of this inquiry has the potential to be very demanding and intensive, and it could take months or even years," Rosenberger told the Dispatch.
"There are many important issues that face the state of Ohio. Ohioans deserve elected leaders who are able to devote their full and undivided attention to those matters."
Rosenberger, who is in his final term, told his Republican caucus tonight that he will resign from the House effective May 1. At that time, Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, the current No. 2 leader, will take over duties of the office until the House votes for a new speaker to serve until the end of the year.
Rosenberger said no one asked him to resign — noting a few colleagues tried to talk him out of it. He also stressed that he does not think he did anything wrong, despite FBI inquiries into some of his actions.
"I’m not going to put my members and my staff keep having a microphone put in their face … and have to go through any issues that I’m going through," he said. "I want to make sure good stuff can still get going."
Rosenberger, two weeks shy of his 37th birthday, was one of Ohio’s youngest speakers, and the first Asian-American to hold the position, when he used a mix of charm and a gregarious personality to win over members who picked him to lead the House at the start of 2015.
In November 2016, House Republicans won a record 66-33 majority.
The resignation announcement comes days after Rosenberger said he hired a defense attorney, because the FBI was asking questions about situations that involved him. Sources have said those inquiries are related largely to at least one overseas trip he took to England late last summer.
Rosenberger said he has not been personally approached by the FBI nor has he been subpoenaed. But, he said, he doesn’t want a cloud hanging over the House.
"My purpose for doing this is not one of guilt, but one, quite frankly, proof that the Ohio House of Representatives is more than one person. The institution is more important than one person."
A battle has raged between Reps. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, and Larry Householder, R-Glenford, to become speaker in 2019, when Rosenberger must depart due to term limits. Rosenberger is close with Smith, and the two of them have been getting beat up online for months, particularly on a Householder-friendly website known as Third Rail Politics.
"I think there are people leaking this and making stories worse than they are, and doing things to compound this based on the speaker’s race," Rosenberger said.
Rosenberger is known around Capitol Square for taking trips around the country and overseas, with the costs usually picked up by campaign funds or outside groups such as GOPAC or the National Conference of State Legislatures. They have included trips to England, France, Italy, and Israel.
He also rents a luxury Downtown condo from Ginni Ragan, an advocate for the elderly and top House GOP contributor.
The FBI reportedly is looking at whether Rosenberger stepped out of bounds while taking advantage of the perks of the job. That includes a four-day trip in late August paid for by the GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development, where Rosenberger, joined by Rep. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, met British officials and toured Parliament, among other things.
Reportedly, there are questions about whether the payday lending industry actually funded the trip. A title lender lobbyist in Ohio, Steve Dimon, was on the trip.
On his recently filed financial disclosure statement, Manning lists GOPAC as a creditor for which he owes at least $1,000. Rosenberger has not yet filed his form, which is due May 15.
In late September, Rosenberger and Manning attended an NCSL-sponsored trip to France that, according to the speaker’s schedule, also extended to Italy. The France conference had five sponsors, including Ragan and national payday lender Advance America.
Rosenberger said he will cooperate with the FBI and he’s confident he will be vindicated.
Asked why he didn’t step down as leader but remain in the legislature, he said: "I’m a pretty straightforward person. I have a problem when my honor and integrity gets questioned. I’m going to defend my honor and integrity. I will not allow myself to be selfish and allow everybody else to have to go through this for the next several months."
Asked earlier in the day if he thought Rosenberger's situation would rub off on his effort to become speaker, Smith simple said, "no."
Rosenberger said he made the decision Tuesday to resign, and he has no immediate plan on what he will do next.
As the acting speaker and dean of the House GOP caucus, Schuring will decide when to call for the election of a new speaker. Lawmakers are expected to leave for a summer break by the end of May, and could be gone through the November election.
Schuring called it an honor and privilege to serve with Rosenberger.
"Particularly in the past three years, I believe we have worked well together to take the lead on a variety of policy issues that are critical for our state’s success" he said. "That is what makes tonight’s announcement so emotional."
Schuring said he will work to continue operations as smoothly as possible.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, a member of House majority leadership, said it’s concerning anytime the FBI is investigating, but he wanted to hear more facts before coming to any conclusions.
Also earlier, Rep. Sarah LaTourette, R-Chagrin Falls, a member of House leadership, said: "I honestly don't know enough to know if I should be concerned or not. I can tell you Speaker Rosenberger is a very good man."
Jim Siegel is a reporter with The Columbus Dispatch.