Cliff Rosenberger stepped into the job of Ohio House speaker in January 2015 with the largest GOP majority in nearly half a century and what appeared to be a long political career ahead of him.
His resignation Tuesday night, which came after the FBI began asking questions about his activities in office, shows how quickly the powerful can fall.
Just 33 years old when he took the speaker’s gavel, Rosenberger quickly embraced the job and its perks: a spacious office, an energetic staff, the opportunity to wield power and a chance to travel far beyond the confines of his small town roots.
Since taking over as speaker, two campaign funds — one for Rosenberger and one for the House GOP caucus — have spent more than $310,000 on food, catering and drinks, $150,000 on lodging, travel and car rentals, and $70,000 on flowers and gifts. He spent more than $30,000 on “challenge coins” — give away trinkets inscribed with his signature and the state seal.
State records show Rosenberger traveled to China, France, Israel and London as well as from Los Angeles to Boston. Between 2010 and 2016, Rosenberger reported $36,924 in travel paid by the state or other entities.
It did not go unnoticed.
This newspaper broke a story in February 2017 that Rosenberger rented a 2,237-square-foot luxury condo in downtown Columbus owned by Ginni Ragan, an heiress who has contributed more than $1.5 million to Ohio Republican campaigns since 2010.
This newspaper followed up with stories about how Rosenberger’s former aide, Hunter Wright, obtained a $209,354 mortgage from Ragan in April 2016 and about how Rosenberger reported in April 2016 that he owes Ragan money for back rent.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has a public corruption team based in Columbus, noticed too. Rosenberger told this newspaper that he hired criminal defense attorney David Axelrod because he heard that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was asking questions about his activities.
Rosenberger said in a written statement: “First and foremost, I believe that all of my actions as speaker have been both ethical and lawful.”
First speaker to resign in more than 50 years
On Tuesday, under the cloud of a federal investigation, Rosenberger abruptly announced he is resigning — the first Ohio House speaker to resign since Roger Cloud left to become state auditor in 1965.
The FBI declined to confirm or deny any investigation but sources familiar with the inquiry say the bureau is looking into a four-day trip the Clarksville Republican took to London in August. Also on the trip were representatives from the payday lending industry, which has been working to stall or water down legislation that would impose strict limits.
Even after Rosenberger announced he is stepping down, that bill stalled again in committee on Tuesday.
Rosenberger’s official calendar — released through a public records request — omits mention of the London trip, except for driving directions for a tour of Longcross Film Studios in Surrey scheduled for Aug. 30.
The four-day trip was sponsored by GOPAC, an organization based in Virginia that works to elect Republicans in higher office. Jessica Curtis, the executive director of GOPAC, confirmed the group’s Institute for Leadership Development sponsored the trip in late August.
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Candidates running for statewide office weighed in on Rosenberger’s resignation, which is effective May 1. State Auditor Dave Yost and Attorney General Mike DeWine issued statements urging Rosenberger to make his resignation effective immediately.
Democrats Richard Cordray and Joe Schiavoni, who are both running for their party nomination for governor on May 8, each held press conferences.
In a conference call, Cordray told reporters that DeWine’s call to Rosenberger on Friday was “highly unusual and they raise serious questions about whether he used his role as Ohio’s top law enforcement official to protect himself politically.”
Cordray said the culture of corruption at the Ohio Statehouse “is going to be a defining issue in this race.”
Democratic Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, said he considers Rosenberger a “friend” and is “disappointed to see the speaker of the House embroiled in an FBI investigation.”
Republicans have held the governor’s office for 23 of the past 27 years, the Ohio House for 21 of the past 23 years and the Ohio Senate since 1985. The last time Democrats won executive statewide offices in 2006 came on the heels of an extensive scandal involving ethics violations and investments at the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
FIRST TO REPORT THE STORY
On Friday, our Columbus Bureau reporter Laura Bischoff was the first reporter in Ohio to report that House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger had hired a defense attorney. By Tuesday, Rosenberger became the first Ohio speaker in more than 100 years to resign. Follow Laura on Twitter at @lbischoff. Get the latest from our political team on our Ohio Politics Facebook page