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Judge declines to freeze Ohio House GOP's campaign account funds before March primary

House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) stands at the dais in February 2024.
Sarah Donaldson
Statehouse News Bureau
House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) stands at the dais in February 2024.

A judge in Franklin County denied a motion Wednesday to freeze the funds within the Ohio House GOP’s campaign committee, the latest in a legal squabble that stems from more than a year of turmoil among some members of the majority caucus.

Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Serrott blocked a request for a short-term restraining order on use and transfer of money in the Ohio House Republican Alliance Legislative Campaign Fund. The OHRA is the caucus’ campaign arm.

In his ruling, Serrott writes that he can’t “ignore the specter of political gamesmanship that looms over this litigation.”

“It appears that plaintiffs, while perhaps well-intentioned, are using this process as a sword, rather than a shield for their rights. As such, this Court finds that granting the injunction to freeze the funds would cause unjustifiable harm to third parties,” Serrott writes.

Republican Reps. Derek Merrin (R-Monclova), Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) and Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) first filed the lawsuit in October, although the motion for a restraining order came in early February.

The original complaint largely argues that Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens (R-Kitts Hill) doesn’t have proper authority to oversee the OHRA because he hasn’t commanded a majority of the caucus’ votes.

Stephens won the speakership a year ago with votes from Republicans and Democrats, beating out Merrin, whom a bigger cohort of the Republican caucus backed.

“We are very pleased with the ruling, including that freezing these funds would not have benefited anyone,” Robert Tucker wrote in an email statement. Tucker is serving as the defense attorney for Stephens and Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Twp.), who is also named as a defendant.

Lisa Ferguson, the plaintiffs’ attorney and Rep. Ferguson’s mother, wrote in an email statement she believes a final ruling will fall in their favor.

“A majority of the Republican caucus has never elected Jason Stephens to do anything, let alone to seize the caucus’s legislative campaign fund and use it to prop up only his hand-picked Blue 22 allies,” she wrote. “Judge Serrott’s decision notes that this case, and the discovery process, will continue.”

Ads against some GOP lawmakers’ primary challengers from the campaign committee have begun to populate online and on-air, with Election Day a little more than a month away on March 19. Six days later, a virtual status conference is scheduled for March 25.
Copyright 2024 The Statehouse News Bureau.