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Householder investigation lost in shuffle
SOURCE: The Plain Dealer
Ted Wendling and Sandy Theis
March 13 2006

Columbus – Two years after former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder scurried back to Perry County with federal agents hot on his trail, the investigation appears to be drawing to a close.

No charges have been filed, and even if indictments are returned, it is unlikely Householder will be charged, according to federal law enforcement sources.

Although state legislators say an Internal Revenue Service agent interviewed them in recent months about Householder's relationship with campaign vendors, the FBI has not worked on the case for more than six months, and the grand jury that had been hearing testimony has not met.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department, FBI and IRS all declined to comment on the investigation, which has focused on allegations that Householder traded legislation for campaign contributions and violated campaign-finance laws.

But with state and federal agents swarming over the spectacular collapse of Republican fund-raiser Tom Noe's rare-coin investment and related scandals, the pay-to-play probe of Householder seems almost an afterthought.

Householder turned down requests for an interview. Craig Calcaterra, one of his attorneys, said the former speaker is confident he will be cleared.

“We've not received any new information about the status of the investigation in several months, which is not terribly surprising,” Calcaterra said.

“That said, Larry has always welcomed the investigation and has believed that it’s the best way to clear his name and continues to believe that that’s what ultimately will occur.”

So confident is Householder that he flirted with an audacious plan for a political comeback. Last month, he considered a run for the Ohio Senate seat being vacated by term-limited Republican Sen. Jay Hottinger of Newark, but he thought better of it and filed for re-election as Perry County auditor.

Senate President Bill Harris, Republican of Ashland, said Householder never consulted him about his plans, but Harris made it clear he would not have welcomed Householder to the Senate.

“I was told that he might be interested in running for the Senate, and I think my comment was that he’s getting awfully good experience as the auditor, and maybe that’s where he should stay,” Harris said.

While Householder strives to resurrect a political career that made him Ohio’s most feared and powerful politician, other key members of “Team Householder” also have seen their careers end or change course.

Brett Buerck, Householder’s former chief of staff, closed his lucrative political consulting firm, First Tuesday, and is now a first-year law student at Ohio State University.

His sidekick, fund-raiser Kyle Sisk, lost his major Republican accounts, sold his home after claiming that records subpoenaed by a grand jury had been stolen from his billiards table and is involved in an undisclosed business venture.

Both declined to discuss the investigation.

At the Statehouse, Householder’s hand-picked successor, Jon Husted, has earned plaudits for a more inclusive and collegial leadership style as he works to shed the nickname “Little Larry.”

Husted, a Dayton-area Republican, fired Buerck and Sisk as consultants to the House GOP in 2004. Since then, he has publicly distanced himself from the pair while quietly helping behind the scenes. He wrote Buerck a letter of recommendation for law school, and his wife, Realtor Tina Husted, was the listing agent for the sale of Sisk’s $300,000 home.

‘The best and worst of everything’

Householder’s meteoric rise from insurance agent in hardscrabble New Lexington to House speaker is due in large part to the political prowess of Buerck, his brilliant, ruthless and hyper-vigilant top aide.

But it was Buerck who ultimately also brought Householder down by alienating colleagues who turned to law enforcement authorities and the news media.

Just 30 years old when he resigned from the House in August 2003, Buerck launched First Tuesday and within two months was pulling in more than $80,000 a month. His clients included two obscure Dayton firms whose goal was Householder’s goal — to install Husted as House speaker and Sen. Jeff Jacobson as Senate president.

Their plan nearly worked, but it collapsed the following summer after Husted and Jacobson, a suburban Dayton Republican, admitted they had routed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Buerck and Sisk through a tiny nonprofit called Citizens for Conservative Values and JSN Associates, a consulting firm run by James Nathanson, one of Jacobson’s closest friends.

In the following months, Buerck lost most of his consulting clients as friends and colleagues deserted him.

If his sudden downfall surprised some, Buerck all but predicted it in an inadvertently prescient interview he gave to Ed Kozelek, executive vice president of the Ohio Cable Telecommunications Association, in 2003.

Asked by Kozelek whether he had a political role model, Buerck named Richard Nixon, saying the disgraced former president’s career “offers a cautionary tale.”

“He lived the American dream,” Buerck said of Nixon. “In the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, parents didn’t dream their son would grow up to be Barry Bonds or that their daughter would be Annika Sorenstam. Their dream was for their son or daughter to grow up to be president. . . .

“But now, today, because of his actions, our opinions of politicians have changed. We don’t trust elected officials anymore. We’re skeptical, highly critical and ultimately, unbelievably cynical.

“Why the change? His personal demons got the better of him. . . . For me, he’s the best and worst of everything.”

Rep. Jim Trakas, who was on Householder’s leadership team, said Buerck’s comments are loaded with irony.

“That’s an amazing personal statement,” the Independence Republican said. “Brett parallels Nixon a lot. With both, there was a genuine brilliance, a political genius there, but then there is the dark, paranoid part of both personas.”

As perseverance characterized Nixon’s political career, Trakas said, Buerck’s ability to move on with his life demonstrates his ability to persevere, too.

“We used to talk about the ‘new Nixon,’ ” he said. “Maybe we have the ‘new Brett Buerck.’ ”

Depoliticizing speaker’s office

Buerck and Sisk raised millions of dollars for Householder and House Republicans by threatening to withhold financial support from wayward members who didn’t vote in lockstep with Householder on key pieces of legislation.

They also strong-armed members to embrace no-new-taxes pledges, using political nonprofits such as the Ohio Taxpayers Association to wage scorched-earth campaigns against Democrats and uncooperative Republican primary opponents.

“When I was trying to put together my first campaign brochure, they kept giving me paragraphs and I kept sending them back and saying, ‘I do my own writing,’ ” said Rep. Jim McGregor, a suburban Columbus Republican. “It’s the coin of the realm, it’s the only thing I have to give my voters, so I told them, ‘I can’t have you writing my words.’

“It was pretty confrontational.”

McGregor said FBI agents questioned him about the work Buerck and Sisk did for House members, asking whether he was aware that Sisk was getting a 20 percent commission from a Kentucky company, Patriot Signage, on every order he placed on behalf of Republican House candidates.

A Patriot attorney said the company cooperated in the investigation and has provided documents to the FBI.

McGregor said he has no idea how much money Sisk was making on the purchases. But he said he prefers Husted’s approach to campaigns. Instead of having his political team arrange sign purchases, Web design and other campaign necessities for the entire caucus, Husted “lets us each run our own operations,” McGregor said.

Trakas said Husted also deserves credit for depoliticizing the speaker’s office.

“Speaker Householder and Brett Buerck were very thorough in talking through the politics of every vote,” he said. “Speaker Husted seems to be more focused on the policy goals and not worried about the politics as much.”