CINCINNATI — Cincinnati City Council Member Jeff Pastor took $55,000 in bribes over the course of about a year in exchange for votes related to development projects in the city, according to federal officials.
A federal grand jury charged Pastor, 36, with conspiring to commit honest services wire fraud, with honest services wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion by a government official and money laundering, officials said on Tuesday.
David DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, announced the indictment on Tuesday afternoon.
“This indictment is indicative of a culture of corruption, a culture of extortion, a culture of pay-to-play,” DeVillers said.
Although the indictment doesn’t identify which developers were involved in the case, DeVillers said former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe is one of them.
“My client was asked to assist in an FBI investigation involving political corruption in the city of Cincinnati. He voluntarily agreed to do so,” said Scott Croswell, Ndukwe’s defense attorney. “He believes political corruption hurts everyone in the community and that it’s something that should not be tolerated.”
Croswell said Ndukwe is pursuing a boutique hotel project at 435 Elm Street, a building formerly known as Convention Place Mall. Ndukwe’s development company, Kingsley + Co., obtained an ownership stake in the property as part of a 2017 lawsuit against its former owner, Ron Goldschmidt.
Columbus lobbyist Neil Clark said he was introduced to Ndukwe in January 2019 by two hotel developers who he now believes were FBI agents. Clark was one of five people indicted in July as part of a federal probe into corruption at the Ohio Statehouse.
Interviewed by the I-Team Tuesday, Clark said he was initially reluctant to meet with the developers who told him they were pursuing a boutique hotel in Cincinnati. They wanted his help in securing state legislation to enable sports betting in hotel properties. But he agreed to the meeting because of Ndukwe’s background as an NFL player and Notre Dame graduate.
“I thought Chin brought a lot of credibility to it,” Clark said.
The trio didn’t supply much information about the project. But Clark said they assured him they had the support of Cincinnati’s city council.
Ndukwe “said this right in front of the two agents,” Clark recalled. “He said he had the votes and the support of City Council on this boutique hotel that he was putting together.”
An FBI squad arrested Pastor at his home early Tuesday morning. Pastor, a Republican, is a member of city council's Law and Public Safety Committee. The committee met at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Pastor was not in attendance because he had already been arrested.
Federal officials announced charges against Pastor at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Cincinnati. Watch the full news conference in the player below.
Pastor, 36, and his business partner, Tyran Marshall, 35, are both charged in the public corruption case, officials said. Pastor was considered to be a "wild card" and called himself a "New Age Republican" when he was sworn into city council in 2018.
Pastor is accused of accepting bribes between August 2018 and February 2019 in relation to two developments in Cincinnati. Officials would not say which developments.
Marshall acted as a middleman in receiving bribes, officials said. Pastor used Marshall’s nonprofit, Ummah Strength, LLC to “sanitize” money, according to the indictment.
Pastor and Marshall flew to Miami in September 2018 on a private plane to meet with investors regarding a real estate development project. Pastor never paid for or disclosed the trip, officials said.
During the trip, Pastor said that he would ensure favorable action for a project in exchange for $15,000, which he accepted in cash about a week later.
The pair also received another $20,000 in October and November 2018 along with two $10,000 payments in exchange for Pastor's official city action benefiting a second project, officials said.
Pastor continued to attempt to get more money for bribes from January 2019 to March 2019.
Investigators said they broke the case with the help of Ndukwe. The former Bengals safety, who is now in charge of development company Kingsley + Company, came to officials in February 2019 and told them Pastor and Marshall had reached out asking for money in exchange for support of his projects.
"Mr. Ndukwe, a lot of developers, a lot of people like him were just sick and tired of being involved in this culture, this expectation of pay to play,” DeVillers said.
Pastor’s arrest is the second time a sitting Cincinnati City Council Member has been arrested this year. Federal officials arrested former Cincinnati City Council Member Tamaya Dennard in a similar manner in February; officials arrested her at a Downtown Starbucks about two hours before she was scheduled to lead an Equity, Inclusion, Youth & the Arts Committee meeting at City Hall.
Pastor tweeted the following statement after Dennard's arrest, saying that he is "committed to delivering transparent, accountable, and honest government to each and every Cincinnatian."
Dennard pleaded guilty in June to honest services wire fraud for taking $15,000 in exchange for votes on council. She faces up to 20 years in prison, up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
Mayor John Cranley released a statement Tuesday afternoon and said that, if the charges are true, the case is one of the most "egregious and disgusting acts" of corruption.
"Public trust is not a commodity to be bought and sold by politicians," Cranley said. "If the charges against Pastor are true, then it is undoubtedly one of the most egregious and disgusting acts of corruption and betrayal ever perpetrated on our City. Given the serious nature of the charges, for the sake of the public trust in the important work we do every day, he must resign immediately.
"Two city council members have been arrested for bribery and extortion related to development deals this year. It is clear that city council members should not be individually involved in negotiating economic development deals—they are supposed to be legislators, not dealmakers.
"The city administration and I commend US Attorney DeVillers for his work because we abhor corruption and want it excised."
Special agent in charge Chris Hoffman alluded that more arrests could come.
"Unfortunately, we don't think it's the end. So we're constantly … investigating allegations of public corruption,” Hoffman said.
By Tuesday evening, several public officials, including a number of Cincinnati City Council Members, had called for Pastor's resignation.
Betsy Sundermann tweeted shortly after the news broke Tuesday morning, calling for Pastor to resign.
I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear the news about Councilmember Jeff Pastor's arrest this morning. While he is owed the presumption of innocence and due process, I firmly believe he needs to step aside from his role on council and resign immediately. It is clear that, 1/X— Betsy Sundermann (@voteSundermann) November 10, 2020
Cincinnati City Council Member David Mann also called for Pastor's resignation.
“Sad day for our city. He should resign immediately. Council must find ways to restore a professional process for making development decisions," Mann said in a statement.
Hamilton County GOP chairman Alex Triantafilou also said Pastor should resign.
Triantafilou released the following statement:
"It is with great sadness that I read media reports of Councilman Pastor's arrest this morning on what is being reported as a bribery scandal. The Hamilton County Republican Party has zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. While Mr. Pastor is afforded the presumption of innocence and due process, he is not entitled to continue working for the citizens of Cincinnati as he sorts through whatever charges may be coming. Jeff should resign his position on City Council and make his family and his legal defense a top priority."
Cincinnati City Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld tweeted that it is a "sad day" for the city and that a new city council member should be appointed if the allegations are true.
This is a sad day for our city. If the allegations are true, a new member of Council needs to be appointed to move forward with the many pressing issues facing our community. My prayers go out to Councilmember Pastor’s family.— P.G. Sittenfeld (@PGSittenfeld) November 10, 2020
Pastor and Marshall appeared in federal court Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie K. Bowman. Clyde Bennett is representing Marshall. Pastor has a public defender.
WCPO has reached out to Pastor's office for comment.