Last Friday, news broke that the FBI was investigating Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s “lavish lifestyle.” Tuesday evening Rosenberger announced that he was resigning from the Ohio Legislature at the end of the month.
On Twitter, I suggested that this is the start, and not the end, of troubles for the Statehouse GOP. I even went so far as to speculate that Cliff Rosenberger might be cooperating with the FBI.
Speculation on Cliff Rosenberger resignation — he is cooperating with FBI and will flip on others in Statehouse. https://t.co/gKdjHfMfbO
— Joshua Adam Engel (@joshuaadamengel) April 11, 2018
Joseph asked if I would expound on my wild theories. So here goes . . .
An initial disclaimer. I know nothing specific. I do not represent anyone involved in this issue.
This speculation – and I emphasize that this is only speculation – is based on my experience as a prosecutor and defense attorney.
Here is what we know:
Rosenberger announced on Tuesday, April 11 that he was planning to resign as Speaker on May 1.
This was only a few days after the story first broke that the FBI was investigating Rosenberger. On April 6, the Dayton Daily News reported that Rosenberger had hired a prominent Columbus defense attorney, David Axelrod, as “a precautionary measure.” Rosenberger said, “as far as I know I have not been told I’m under investigation.”
“I went ahead and hired David Axelrod because I had been made aware and understand that the bureau is asking questions about things I may have been involved in. But that is only from a precautionary standpoint.”
That same day, the Cincinnati Enquirer suggested that “Rosenberger’s penchant for travel – paid for outside groups, his campaign funds and the House GOP caucus – has raised eyebrows.” The Cincinnati paper noted that “Rosenberger also has faced criticism for renting a luxury condo in downtown Columbus from a longtime GOP donor …”
Two days later, the Cincinnati Enquirer seemed to back off of allegations of illegality. The paper wrote about Rosenberger’s situation:
Relationships with donors or lobbyists, expensive travel, and the like can be ethically questionable, but they often are not illegal. For example, if lawmakers follow guidelines for accepting gifts or campaign contributions, or if they spend time with lobbyists but don’t trade favors, they are not breaking the law.
Two days later, Rosenberger announced that he was resigning.
Some Democrats have suggested that there is more to this story. And some of the Republicans who accompanied Rosenberger on some of his travels, including Leslie Gaines, a South Carolina lobbyist, and Rep. Nathan Manning, have declined to say whether they have been interviewed by the FBI.
Here are some guesses as to what is going on:
First, there is a lot more to this story.
I start with the premise that the FBI normally does not get involved in investigations of improper reporting of travel. Rosenberger was required to disclose travel paid for by others on his financial disclosure forms – and while this is the sort of thing that got Gov. Taft in trouble, it is not the sort of thing the FBI’s going to spend federal resources investigating. Instead, the FBI is usually focused on allegations of significant or large scale corruption. Most FBI public corruption investigations involve multiple defendants.
The most likely targets of the FBI inquiry are payments to lawmakers from the payday lending industry and charter school operators, namely ECOT. These industries have not been shy about using campaign donations to influence policy, and it is possible that they stepped over the line.
Second, we should consider whether Rosenberger is cooperating with the FBI and federal prosecutors. If I were representing a Republican working on Capital Square, this would be my concern and my assumption. I infer that cooperation is possible because of the speed in which this story led to Rosenberger’s resignation. If the FBI were focused on a single incident, or were just in the early stages of an investigation, we would expect a politician – especially one facing term limits at the end of the year – to try to ride out the storm. Certainly there is enough other news nationally to push this story to the back pages.
Instead, Rosenberger hires an attorney and then quickly resigns. This leads me to speculate that the FBI has some substantial and damaging information on Rosenberger.
So . . . based on that, I assume that the FBI has Rosenberger dead-to-rights on some criminal violation. And, in my experience, the FBI does not publicly move against someone in government if they don’t believe they have a solid case. If that is the case, the smart move for any targets is to trade whatever information they have for a favorable deal. Certainly, as speaker, Rosenberger would be in a position to have lots of valuable information.
Consistent with this view is the actions of AG Dewine. Dewine allegedly called Rosenberger and asked him to resign. Dewine might know the evidence against Rosenberger.
Dewine, the likely Republican candidate for governor this year, has also been around long enough to know how the FBI operates. And he may not want Rosenberger around any other Republican lawmakers where he could learn of more wrongdoing to report to the FBI.
We have seen this before. In 2011, State Rep. W. Carlton Weddington was convicted of bribery after he received travel expenses from undercover FBI agents in exchange for agreeing to draft legislation. Notably, Weddington agreed to cooperate with the FBI and Franklin County prosecutors. As part of this cooperation agreement, Weddington resigned from the Legislature and provided information on others in the Legislature. His cooperation led to the conviction of another member of the Legislature.
I need to emphasize, again, any cooperation by Rosenberger is speculation. I have no specific information. But it makes sense. It is the smart thing to do. And it explains everything we know.
Finally, one last disclaimer and personal note. I live in Rosenberger’s district and it is a small community. I have observed that he has done great things for a Wilmington community that was hard hit by the last recession and is still struggling to recover. I have not worked with him, however. And I have no reason to doubt him when he says he is innocent, everyone, as we know, is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Joshua Engel is a former prosecutor in Massachusetts and Ohio.
Engel is currently working as a civil rights attorney in Mason, Ohio at Engel & Martin, LLC