Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn and one of the recently indicted players in the Householder scandal both found themselves under investigation for misusing funds and seizing newspapers that uncovered their misdeeds when they served on The Ohio State University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG).
Blackburn at the time was chief of staff of USG under then-President Robert “B.J.” Schuerger and then-Vice President Juan Cespedes, the now-indicted Columbus lobbyist who served as one of Rep. Larry Householder’s (R-Glenford) “key” middlemen in their alleged scheme to take $60 million in First Energy company money to help pass widely controversial nuclear bailout legislation, or House Bill 6, according to a federal complaint filed in July.
As USG leaders, Schuerger and Cespedes in 2001 gave a stipend of more than $2,000 in university funds to Blackburn that they and others spent on a lavish nighttime romp through downtown Columbus in a rented limousine where they sipped champagne and stopped to eat a costly meal at Mitchell Steakhouse, a reportedly popular restaurant among the political elite.
The money was reportedly given to Blackburn for his work in two installments, a check for $1000 and another for $1,250, without the approval of the body, according to Columbus Monthly magazine.
Student journalists at the time reportedly published in The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper, a bombshell front-page report that questioned the government leaders’ spending of the money. The report could not be found through The Lantern’s digital archives.
That day, about 10,000 copies of The Lantern were reportedly stolen from campus newstands, prompting an investigation by the Ohio State administration into whether USG leaders misused funds and tried to obstruct the reporting of their wrongdoings, according to Columbus Monthly.
Blackburn resigned from USG a week later, saying he was not happy with the body, The Lantern reported. Schuerger reportedly said at the time that he asked Blackburn to resign because he was the one who misused the funds.
Blackburn, in response, said the former president was lying.
“B.J. never asked for my resignation, I gave it to him,” Blackburn told The Lantern at the time.
Days later, the university administration published its investigation’s findings that USG members misused funds, lied to university officials and “executed a plan” to prevent circulation of The Lantern’s report, according to Columbus Monthly.
Schuerger stepped down as body president the following day. He reportedly later told The Columbus Dispatch that Cespedes, Blackburn and himself were three of the eight students punished for misusing university funds. Six were also reprimanded for stealing and destroying thousands of Lantern copies, according to Columbus Monthly, though it’s unclear exactly who. The Dispatch story could not be found through the newspapers’ digital archives.
All three graduated from Ohio State and went on to pursue careers in Ohio public affairs.
Blackburn, who is running unopposed for re-election this fall, said in an interview with The Athens NEWS on Thursday that he worked with the Ohio State administration to “uncover the truth” of how the funds were spent and he denied his involvement in stealing the newspapers.
“The vice president of student affairs at Ohio State, Bill Hall, wrote a letter of recommendation for me to go to law school and I’ve worked diligently to try to make my community better ever since,” he said.
The Athens County Prosecutor in 2016 again found himself under the threat of an investigation into allegations of misusing funds — that time by then-Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost, according to a previous report in The Athens NEWS.
The threat of an investigation, which eventually came to fruition, was prompted by a news report that ran at the time on WSYX ABC6, a Columbus TV station, that focused on meals and expenses related to training trips taken by the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.
Specifically, the report questioned a trip to San Diego during which Blackburn and two assistant prosecutors reportedly attended a training session, but Ohio Supreme Court files show no record of Blackburn turning in continuing-education credits for completing the course.
The station’s report also raised questions about Blackburn and staff eating at steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris in Columbus for $395, as well as a meal at Mitchell’s Ocean Club in Columbus with a bill of $380. It also cited a trip to Orlando during which Blackburn had a $90 steak dinner one night, and on another went to Disney, spending $75 on food.
The report also included secret video footage of Blackburn eating alone at Morton’s Steakhouse in Columbus and taking an Uber ride back to his hotel.
The report acknowledged that these things are not necessarily illegal but may be questionable — a point of view shared by Yost in a follow-up report that ran at the time.
The Auditor’s Office determined in 2017, however, that Blackburn did not violate the law in his use of outside accounts for meals and other expenses on training trips taken by him and his staff, according to a previous report in The NEWS.
Although Yost did include a reprimand of sorts in his news release announcing the decision, saying that Yost and Blackburn “took a trip to the woodshed recently” to discuss the results of the Auditor office’s task force review of the matter.
Cespedes was arrested and indicted on federal racketeering charges last month in connection to his central involvement in Householder’s alleged scheme to grab power and push through public policy with the help of First Energy bribes.
According to a federal affidavit, Cespedes lobbied for Energy Harbor, a First Energy spinoff company, through The Oxley Group, a lobbying firm that he and Schuerger founded together in 2006 under a different name.
Cespedes played a central role in ensuring that Householder secured the speakership in 2018 and in helping to pass House Bill 6 to bail out Ohio nuclear plants.
There were no formal charges filed against Schuerger, who now works as a Columbus attorney, and his name was not mentioned in any of the documents related to the ongoing federal investigation.