FBI agents arrested Cincinnati City Council, PG Sittenfeld, on federal charges early Thursday, accusing it of accepting bribes in exchange for favorable votes on development agreements.
Sittenfeld, a Democrat and a suspected leader in next year’s mayoral elections, becomes the third member of the city’s nine-member city council to be arrested for bribery this year. He is charged with bribery, cable fraud and attempted extortion and faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years if convicted.
Diane Menashe, Sittenfeld’s attorney, pleaded not guilty to the federal court on Thursday afternoon.
Sittenfeld was elected to the council in 2011 and has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $ 710,000 on his way to becoming one of the city’s most popular and powerful politicians.
The indictment against Sittenfeld, set out in an indictment shortly after his arrest, accuses him of orchestrating a plan to channel money from developers into a secretly controlled political action committee (PAC). According to the indictment, the developers were actually undercover FBI agents who presented Sittenfeld three times with checks totaling $ 40,000 in 2018 and 2019.
The indictment says Sittenfeld requested the money in exchange for supporting a plan to develop the former Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm St., which Cincinnati developer Chinedum Ndukwe, a former Bengali gambler, will use as a hotel and office complex wanted to develop betting with sports.
The 36-year-old Sittenfeld did not pocket the money himself, according to the indictment, but instead introduced it to the PAC, which he is not legally allowed to monitor himself. In discussions with the undercover agents, he also made it clear how they should donate the money, how much they should donate and what they could expect in return, according to the federal prosecutor’s office.
“It’s all part of a system,” said US attorney David DeVillers, who will lead law enforcement at Sittenfeld. “The promises, accepting cash, hiding where it comes from.”
In his talks with the undercover agents, according to the indictment, Sittenfeld promised that his popularity with the voters and his clout in the town hall could give them what they wanted.
“Don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote on my left or a vote on my right,” Sittenfeld said in December 2018, according to the prosecution.
In another conversation a month earlier, according to the indictment, Sittenfeld said the donations and his support for the development project should not be viewed as “consideration” but as an investment in its ability to deliver.
“These people want to know, I mean, people want to invest in a profitable endeavor, right?” Sittenfeld said according to the prosecution. “I want to give you the confidence and comfort that you are doing this.”
Federal prosecutors said Sittenfeld had repeatedly made such assurances to the undercover agents, including in a conversation in November 2018 in which the prosecution quoted Sittenfeld as saying, “Look, I am ready to guard the voices as soon as they are on the council with us arrive.”
In another conversation quoted in the indictment, also in November 2018, Sittenfeld said: “I can cast the votes.”
DeVillers said the month-long investigation included multiple meetings at a Columbus hotel between Sittenfeld and the agents, as well as recordings of conversations, phone calls and text messages.
Sittenfeld’s arrest sent shock waves through town hall and immediately enlivened the mayor’s race the next year. Democratic compatriot and rival mayoral candidate David Mann described the news as “sad, sad, sad”.
“We still have a lot to do to convince the public that honest business can be done at City Hall,” he said. “I just found out. I have to record this. I don’t understand. Why does anyone think these things happen without consequence?”
More:PG Sittenfeld: What You Should Know About Cincinnati City Council
DeVillers said the charges against Sittenfeld were not directly related to charges against Democrat Tamaya Dennard and Republican Jeff Pastor, his two city council colleagues, who were accused earlier this year of soliciting cash from developers in exchange for their votes . However, Sittenfeld’s case is indirectly linked to Pastor’s, as both men are accused of seeking cash from Ndukwe for help with his project in 435 Elm.
Prosecutors previously said Ndukwe worked with the FBI as a cooperating witness, exchanging information and working with the undercover agents while interacting with Pastor. DeVillers said a similar scenario played out with Sittenfeld, although neither Sittenfeld nor Pastor knew of the other’s involvement.
“They both drank from the same cup,” DeVillers said of Sittenfeld and Pastor. “But there is no evidence that they knew what the other was doing.”
The PAC at the center of the indictment against Sittenfeld is called Progress and Growth, an allusion to Sittenfeld’s initials “PG”. By Thursday, the PAC had raised about $ 90,000.
According to the law, such PACs can support candidates and raise funds at much higher levels than is allowed for individual candidates. However, they cannot be operated or affiliated with these candidates. The indictment states that the Progress and Growth PAC was operated exclusively by Sittenfeld, which would be illegal.
The donations listed in the indictment came in around the same time the city was reforming campaign funding laws. These reforms included limiting the number of limited liability companies that can donate to a candidate.
According to the prosecution, Sittenfeld was keen to raise as many donations as possible before the law was changed. At the same time, he publicly supported the new law, known as Edition 13, that voters approved in 2018.
Prosecutors said Sittenfeld touted the PAC as a way of raising money for his campaign without drawing attention to him or the donors.
“I have a PAC that … nobody likes snooping around who’s giving,” he told the prosecution undercover agents. “To be honest, a lot of people don’t even know I have it.”
Prosecutors said Sittenfeld then instructed agents how to donate to the PAC by establishing limited liability companies that would then write checks to the PAC. “None of this will ever be associated with me and nobody will, you know, nobody will poke around to find your name on it,” the prosecution quoted Sittenfeld as saying.
At a press conference Thursday after Sittenfeld’s arrest, DeVillers said prosecutors believed Sittenfeld had “funded the war chest for future political endeavors.” He also reiterated his earlier criticism of the City Hall’s “culture of corruption” which, in his opinion, deprives taxpayers of ethical representation and leads to distrust among citizens.
Corruption cases involving officials and campaign funds can be difficult to prosecute as they usually involve legal processes that prosecutors must prove to have been corrupted by politicians or donors. In Sittenfeld’s case, according to DeVillers, prosecutors do not have to prove any explicit consideration, only that Sittenfeld knowingly and illegally manipulated the system for his own benefit.
He said Sittenfeld led the alleged program through face-to-face meetings and conversations directed by the undercover agents. He said it was also important that Sittenfeld accepted the checks himself.
Neither Sittenfeld nor his lawyer could be reached immediately for comment.
From the archives:Cincinnati City Council: Rise of the Young Professional
A timeline:Recent corruption in Cincinnati City Hall
Sittenfeld’s ambition to become mayor was an open secret for months before finally making an official announcement in July that he was surrounded by a who-is-who of the Cincinnati Democrats. Sittenfeld was elected to the council in 2011 as part of a wave of new young politicians. He was growing in popularity and received the most votes in the 2013 and 2017 elections.
He ran for the US Senate in 2016 and lost in a Democratic primary against former Governor Ted Strickland. At this point, and in the third year of his last four-year term, he is limited in time.
Sittenfeld’s arrest leaves his political future in doubt and may open the door for others to jump into the race. At least three other candidates have announced runs: Mann, activist Kelli Prather and retired firefighter Raffel Prophett.
After Pastor’s arrest, DeVillers hinted that more arrests would come. Although Dennard and Pastor were accused of soliciting or accepting cash, DeVillers found last week that accepting campaign donations in exchange for favors was also against federal law.
DeVillers said last week that the federal investigation revealed “a culture of corruption” that is tolerated in the city government. “We are concerned about the near acceptance for this to be done,” DeVillers told These Cases last week. Our goal is to make people nervous and stop them from doing this. “
At the time, DeVillers said the investigation was still ongoing and more people could be charged. “We still have a way to go,” he said. “We still have some law enforcement measures to take.”
Later that week, DeVillers said on the podcast, “The Enquirer’s That’s So Cincinnati,” he was stunned by the audacity of some politicians.
“It’s almost like a thought of ‘I’m eligible now. I’m an elected officer now.’ Now somehow you have the right to receive those donations or to fill your pockets, “DeVillers said. “Not everyone feels that way, but it’s probably the biggest surprise I’ve seen as a US attorney.”
The Enquirer reporter Scott Wartman contributed to this.