A Franklin County judge described the ongoing effort to put a “green energy” initiative on the Columbus ballot as an illegitimate attempt to steal taxpayer money when he decided its leader Tuesday to 120 days in jail for filing a false campaign finance report in 2019.
Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Chris M. Brown also earns John A. Clark Jr., 50, of the Near East Side, to pay a $2,500 fine, work 250 hours of community service and five years of probation.
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“I’m specifically going to ask the community service be through the Columbus Parks Department so you can work with the people you were trying to steal money from. You’ll work in programs that would’ve been shut down had you been successful, Brown said.
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Clark has led multiple drives in recent years to get a “green energy” initiative put on the Columbus ballot that, if any had passed, would have diverted more than $40 million of taxpayer money from the city budget toward ProEnergy Ohio LLC, a limited partnership group led by Clark.
After a back-and-forth with the city council and the courts, a version of the initiative that would have redirected $87 million to ProEnergy Ohio made it onto the ballot last November. It was soundly defeated.
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A Franklin County jury found Clark — who also has gone by John Clarke — guilty on May 16 of one count of election falsification, a fifth-degree felony.
The jury found Clark not guilty on two other charges: a second count of election falsification and one count of tampering with government records, a third-degree felony. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on a second count of tampering with government records.
William Ireland II, one of Clark’s defense attorneys, said they will appeal the sentence, which they feel was overly harsh.
“We are shocked at this sentence on a family man who has worked studiously for clean energy efforts here in Ohio,” Ireland said. “The entire initiative had a blueprint. The prosecution repeatedly mischaracterized the nature of the clean energy initiative.”
Clark’s attorneys characterized the crime as an honest mistake for which Clark has responsibility.
The charge Clark was found guilty of relates to false information provided on a campaign finance report filed with the city of Columbus’ campaign finance office on Aug. 18, 2019. This was in connection with a 2019 drive for a ballot measure that would have redirected $57 million of Columbus’ budget to ProEnergy Ohio.
Prosecutors said investigators found that five people listed on the 2019 report – one who was listed as contributing $13,000 and the other four listed as contributing $10,000 each – gave nothing at all.
‘This is theft,’ judge says
“This was attempted theft of millions from the taxpayer,” said Joseph Gibson Jr., a special prosecutor on the case.
Judge Brown agreed: “What you’re trying to do is you’re asking to have the city taxpayers finance this venture that is bare bones at best. And to do that, you’re filing these false campaign reports to make it look like this was a serious issue. Intent does matter. …This is clearly something that is not a legitimate political proposition. This is theft.”
Before sentencing, Brown asked Clark to explain how the initiative would have worked if it passed. The group has never been very specific as to how exactly the money it wants the city to give it would be used, who would benefit, and who is behind the effort.
Clark, audibly nervous, attempted to explain how his group would have worked with the NY Green Bank, a New York state entity, to give subsidies to Columbus electricity customers who switch to a green-energy provider.
Brown called it an ineffective elevator pitch.
“You don’t go into a bank and ask for $57 million and then say, ‘I don’t have a plan yet. Just give me the money, I’ll control it all,'” Brown said.
At this, Clark tried to interrupt the judge, saying, “I had agreements.” Clark’s lawyers shushed Clark.
Jordan Laird is a criminal justice reporter at the Columbus Dispatch. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @LairdWrites.