As the FBI raided the home of the former GOP House speaker Wednesday, the House again canceled a vote on a new leader, causing a frustrated speaker candidate to accuse a fellow Republican of bullying and extortion of legislators and staffers.
Meanwhile, more than 100 bills now await potential House action, including pay raises for non-union state workers, payday lending regulations and funding for new voting machines.
Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, the front-runner to replace former Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, who abruptly resigned in April amid an FBI investigation, accused Rep. Larry Householder on Wednesday of using "embarrassing" efforts to convince GOP members not to back him.
Smith said the House should have gone forward with a speaker vote scheduled for this week, which would have featured a choice between him, Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, and Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton. Citing uncertainty about the vote, Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, the acting speaker, again canceled the House session.
Coming out of a private GOP meeting last week, Smith had 47 Republican votes, three shy of the 50 needed. At that time, he said he was confident of getting to 50.
"Frankly, in the last week, the tactics once again that have been used from bullying, to threats to downright extortion, is embarrassing," Smith told a media gathering outside the House chamber.
He said that has included telling members that labor unions can be used to back their opponents, or "give you a free run."
"I won’t make a deal today, tomorrow, ever, with people who act like that," Smith said. "I came to Columbus with my integrity. I’m going to leave with my integrity whether I win or not."
Householder, R-Bidwell, a former speaker who has been engaged in a bitter fight with Smith over who will become speaker starting in 2019, denied the allegations. Householder supports a short-term speaker like Thompson, who is leaving the chamber at the end of December.
"It’s my understanding that Rep. Smith made a litany of unfounded allegations that are unequivocally false," Householder said in a prepared statement. "I don’t believe wild accusations and name calling is a responsible course to resolving conflicts and only leads to greater divides."
Smith said a blogger acting on behalf of Householder is posting lies on a website that, Smith says, is funded by ECOT founder Bill Lager. The site, which has attacked Smith for months, has tried to connect Smith to the FBI investigation of Rosenberger.
The FBI on Wednesday raided Rosenberger’s Clarksville home and a storage facility where items from his Riffe Center office were transported earlier this month.
Smith said Lager opposes him because he refused to help him pass an amendment related to ECOT’s effort to get out from under a Department of Education demand that the now-closed online school repay $80 million for unverified enrollment.
"I’m not being investigated by the FBI, and the reason I can tell you that is I’ve given them no reason to investigate me," Smith said. "As far as I know, the people who have been questioned, my name has never come up. The subpoenas asking for public information on calendars and so on have never involved me, my office or anyone else."
Smith said he also is under attack from payday lending interests trying to stop a bill that would impose stricter regulations on short-term loans.
Asked how many votes he has, Smith said, "it’s a hard question to answer when you’ve got people being threatened every day."
Earlier in the day, Schuring also expressed unhappiness with the tactics.
"It’s sad that within our own ranks that high-pressure tactics are underway that have caused some members to maybe be intimidated and maybe not do what is traditional," Schuring said. "It’s not a good period we’re in right now, because of some of the tactics that are being used."
The FBI probe of Rosenberger escalated Wednesday with the raids. Rosenberger is being investigated for his overseas trips to such locales as London and France, attended and funded by special interest groups, including the payday lending industry, along with other gifts and perks.
The FBI investigation and Republican infighting generated a Democratic dogpile of criticism.
"Today’s developments are symptoms of a sickness in the capital," Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Richard Cordray said. "It’s no secret our legislature has gone completely off the rails as a result of one-party rule."
By mid-afternoon, Ohio Democrats were fundraising off the FBI raids — complete with a video of FBI agents at Rosenberger’s home.
"While I may disagree with Republicans on important key issues, the fact remains they are the majority party and they are tasked with and have an obligation to lead," Strahorn said. "They are failing at this test miserably. As a result, the work of the people is suffering."
Schuring said the decision to cancel both Wednesday and Thursday House sessions was made prior to learning of the FBI raids. The State Highway Patrol said it was not aware of any FBI activity on state property.
Material from Rosenberger’s Ohio House office was packed into more than 60 boxes and loaded into a moving truck May 11, with the items taken to the storage unit that the FBI was examining. The storage unit is owned by Bret Dixon, his campaign treasurer who also is the Clinton County economic development director.
Rosenberger is cooperating, previously offering to provide material sought in Wednesday’s raids, said his attorney, David Axelrod.
"Speaker Rosenberger has acted lawfully and ethically and looks forward to a positive resolution of the matter," he said. Rosenberger says he did nothing wrong.
Schuring said he wanted to verify the speaker vote count before holding a House session. The struggle persists despite the Republicans’ record 66-33 House majority.
"This is uncharted territory we’re in right now," Schuring said. "I still have confidence we’ll get there, but I’m not going to roll the dice and have a three-ring circus where we don’t know what the outcome will be."
Concern is growing that the lingering fight is not only holding up legislative work, but making majority Republicans look increasingly dysfunctional in an election year.
"Ohioans deserve better," said Rep. David Leland, D-Columbus. "Instead of holding the people’s work hostage, we should be coming together to defend the integrity of this institution and get back to the work we were sent here to do."
Ohio’s major business-advocacy groups sent a joint letter to House Republicans on Tuesday urging them to pick a leader.
"I am very disappointed that we have members of our caucus who have chosen to break with tradition and not join with others to support our nominee," Schuring said, speaking of Smith, who, has 47 Republican votes.
Householder doesn’t have enough support now to become speaker, but candidates he backed won a number of primary races, likely boosting his standing following the November election.
Most House Democrats are expected to vote for Strahorn, although Smith said a few will support him.
Dispatch reporters Randy Ludlow and Marty Schladen contributed to this story.