COLUMBUS — Under investigation by the FBI for his lavish lifestyle, Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger resigned late Tuesday, effective May 1.
“This inquiry has the potential to be very demanding and intensive, and could take months or even years to resolve,” he said in a statement. “Ohioans deserve elected leaders who are able to devote their full and undivided attention to (lawmaking). …
“I take this step with full confidence in my ultimate vindication.” The FBI’s interest in Rosenberger, one of Ohio’s most powerful politicians, ranges from his worldwide travel to his use of a donor’s luxury condo, several people briefed on the investigation told The Enquirer.
As speaker, the Clinton County native has made the most of the perks of the office. An Enquirer review on Monday detailed his travel, ranging from Europe to Israel to Los Angeles to Boston. Often, his trips were paid for with other people’s money, instead of out of his $100,798 salary. He often rubbed shoulders with lobbyists on the trips.
FBI agents are also looking into Rosenberger’s cozy relationship with longtime GOP donor Ginni Ragan. Rosenberger, 36, of Clarksville, rented a luxury condo from her in downtown Columbus. The speaker did not say how much he paid in rent, and state law doesn’t require he disclose it.
Rep. Kirk Schuring, Rosenberger’s No. 2, said he was not sure whether the FBI’s investigation into Rosenberger included subpoenas of the House GOP or any of its members.
‘How does it read on the front page?’
Among top Republican lawmakers, Rosenberger’s penchant for travel was unmatched. Schuring said he follows a simple guideline when considering whether to accept free travel: “How does it read on the front page of the paper?”
Rosenberger’s fall from power was stunningly swift. News of the FBI investigation broke Friday night. Following The Enquirer’s review of his travel and an Enquirer report Tuesday detailing the scope of the FBI’s investigation, Rosenberger told House Republicans he would resign.
Several lawmakers leaving caucus declined to comment about the speaker’s resignation.
Madeira’s @JonathanDever said he was shocked. “I think what he did was in the best interest of the state. I wish him the best.”
— Jessie Balmert (@jbalmert) April 11, 2018
After an emotional resignation before the caucus Tuesday night, Rosenberger slipped out of downtown Columbus’ Riffe Center, which holds most House offices, avoiding a cluster of waiting reporters. Lawmakers leaving the caucus meeting were pondering Rosenberger’s free-fall. Rosenberger’s allies already were defending his legacy.
“I don’t have any concerns about his travel,” said Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township. The House GOP’s political arm, he added, “raised more money than it’s ever raised before during his speakership. And we’ve elected more Republican representatives than ever before under his speakership. So by my definition, that’s called success.”
A nasty race for Rosenberger’s replacement
Schuring, R-Canton, will become acting speaker until the House elects a new one, likely shortly after Rosenberger officially resigns. That person will serve until the end of 2018.
Rosenberger was term-limited at the end of 2018, and House Republicans already were embroiled in a nasty race for his replacement. The leading candidates: Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, a Rosenberger friend and ally, and Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford, who served as House speaker from 2001 to 2004.
Householder himself knows something of FBI investigations. In 2004, the FBI investigated allegations that Householder and aides traded legislation for campaign contributions. In 2006, U.S. Department of Justice closed the case, saying no criminal charges were warranted. Householder returned to the Ohio House in 2017 after serving as Perry County auditor.
The contest to be the next speaker will intensify, with some trying to tie Smith to Rosenberger’s troubles and others warning of the return of Householder’s issues. Smith will try to keep Rosenberger’s coalition together, and Householder will try to poach representatives for his efforts.
The race may continue after the November election, when the majority party again will vote on a leader, this time for a two-year term. Smith and Householder already were backing different Republican candidates in some House primaries around the state, each hoping to gain votes for their speaker’s races.
Travel with lobbyists and a condo from an heiress
The scope of the FBI investigation includes Rosenberger’s ethically questionable relationships with lobbyists and donors. For instance, in August, Rosenberger joined five GOP leaders from other states on a four-day trip to London, paid for by the conservative GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development.
The trip included an opportunity for lobbyists to rub shoulders with lawmakers. Two lobbyists for title lender LoanMax, Ohio’s Steve Dimon and South Carolina’s Leslie Gaines, are pictured in Facebook photos from the trip. Title and payday lenders have been trying to stall legislation that would restrict that industry.
Dimon and Gaines, linked as business partners and as a couple, have spent time with Rosenberger and other members of the Ohio House all over the country. Gaines’ Facebook page includes photos of Rosenberger in Vermont, in Florida, on a pheasant hunt and at Ohio Stadium.
But Gaines is not registered as a lobbyist in Ohio. And although Dimon is, he did not report lobbying for LoanMax on any bills in the second hal of 2017. Also of interest to the FBI: Rosenberger’s living arrangements in Columbus. Ragan, the 73-year-old donor who owns the downtown Columbus condo he rented, has given $1.7 million to GOP politicians’ campaigns – most of them members of the Ohio House – since 2012. Nearly $47,000 has gone to Rosenberger’s campaign.
Her donations have also funded Rosenberger’s travel, although records do not show them doing so directly. He has spent money from his campaign fund on travel, but Ragan has also sponsored travel paid for an outside group. Rosenberger took a free trip in September to Normandy, France, with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ragan was listed as a sponsor. Rosenberger sits on the group’s board, which gives him extra opportunities to travel. Ragan is a top shareholder in Greif, a Delaware, Ohio, industrial packaging manufacturer. Her late father was Greif’s chairman, and her son serves on the company’s board.
During his first year as speaker, Rosenberger spent about $11,000 in campaign contributions on travel-related expenses. By 2017, that number had ballooned to about $33,000, according to campaign finance reports. In comparison, Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, spent about $1,000 on hotels over the past 10 years combined. Before leading the Ohio House, Rosenberger spent about $2,000 a year on travel expenses.