COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – On Thursday afternoon, a Franklin County judge heard arguments in a lawsuit against Speaker of the Ohio House Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill), brought forward by members of his own party.
Republican infighting has plagued the Ohio Statehouse for more than a year now. Last January, a group of 22 Republicans broke from the rest of the party and joined Democrats to elect Stephens to speakership — beating out Representative Derek Merrin (R-Monclova Township), who was originally poised to win the position, and received the vote from a majority of Republicans.
Representatives Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville), Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) and Merrin are suing Stephens and Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Township) over campaign finance account disputes. Right now, Stephens has control over the account, which has just over $3 million in it, despite the plaintiffs in the case saying a majority of Republicans elected Plummer to control the account known as OHRA.
On Thursday, Judge Mark Serrott, endorsed by the Democratic party, heard arguments about whether to put a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the account, essentially freezing the funds for at least two weeks.
“This has to be embarrassing for the party,” Serrott said.
The account is used for election related expenses, like campaign signs, TV and radio ads, and consulting. Lisa Ferguson, Rep. Ferguson’s mom, is representing the plaintiffs in the case. On Thursday, she argued for the TRO on the funds, saying the “Stephens’ camp” is getting an “unfair advantage” by having control of the fund.
“You’re taking an important tool and weapon that will change the landscape of the election,” Lisa said. “We are just asking that you freeze the funds, so everyone is on an even playing field.”
The complaint cites the Ohio Revised Code, which states, “Each legislative campaign fund shall be administered and controlled in a manner designated by the caucus.”
The plaintiffs argue that Stephens and LaRe have “falsely” maintained control of funds despite the caucus voting others as chair.
“If I do nothing and [Stephens] continues to ignore the vote, there is no remedy and the statute is meaningless, and there is no answer, period,” Serrott said. “And that doesn’t seem fair to me when you have a statute that is fairly clear.”
The defense is represented by Robert Tucker, who said the timing of the lawsuit raises questions.
“Had they filed this lawsuit in January or February of 2023, then the entire course of events would be different here,” Tucker said. “It wasn’t until they realized there was $3 million in the account that they wanted to bring this forward.”
Tucker said this case is “all about the money.” Tucker argued that the group suing for control has not raised or contributed money to the fund and said who controls it and how it is administered are political, not legal, questions.
But Ferguson said internal mediation to solve the infighting was attempted during that time, prompting the delay.
“There were discussions and efforts made to come to a conclusion without coming to this, but as we knew the resolution wasn’t working,” L. Ferguson said. “We attempted to reach out and reach a resolution.”
The judge said, “I understand why there was some delay” in filing the lawsuit.
Tucker said the documentation that Plummer was voted to control funds is “questionable or unclear at best.”
“There is no evidence of who actually received the invite to the meeting, there is no evidence of who actually voted at the meeting, there is just no validity to the vote whatsoever,” Tucker said.
Serrott said that Stephens has “put it in writing that he will support all incumbents.” The defense also pointed that out.
“There is no reason for the plaintiffs to believe that,” Lisa said. “He has never spent money on Brian Stewart or Beth Lear, or Josh Williams. There are people who have requested funds who have been denied who are incumbents.”
Serrott said he will have a decision about the TRO, by Tuesday, though, he said he has “given indication” of which way he is leaning.
“It’s a squabble between Republicans that you are asking a Democratic judge to solve,” he said.