CINCINNATI — A grand jury indicted City Council member Wendell Young on Thursday on a felony charge of tampering with evidence connected to the “Gang of Five” — a group of council members who broke the law by conducting public business in private messages during 2018.
Young destroyed some of that private correspondence despite knowing the group was under investigation, according to special prosecutor Patrick Hanley.
“At some point between January 3, 2018 and October 16, 2018, Young knowingly and with the purpose to defraud, destroyed text messages that belonged to a government entity,” Hanley said in a statement.
Young could spend three years in prison if convicted of tampering.
The “Gang of Five” consisted of Young and fellow Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard and Chris Seelbach, all of whom admitted they had texted and emailed each other about city business. Ohio’s Open Meetings Act requires meetings of public bodies to be accessible to the public.
Texts released by the city reveal the quintet discussed how they planned to vote in advance of city council meetings, debated funding for local nonprofits and gossiped about other prominent city figures such as Mayor John Cranley.
Hanley, the special prosecutor, did not disclose why it had taken two years for the tampering charge to arrive. In 2020, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters indicated Hanley had led him to believe the investigation was over.
"This should end the whole matter," Hanley said of the case on Thursday.
Young is the fourth member of City Council indicted on criminal charges since February 2020, although his colleagues' charges were unrelated to the "Gang of Five." Sittenfeld, Dennard and Jeff Pastor were all arrested by FBI agents in 2020; each member of the trio stood accused of soliciting bribes from local developers in exchange for votes on upcoming projects.
Dennard, who resigned shortly after her arrest, pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud and received a sentence of 18 months in prison. Sittenfeld and Pastor have been suspended from council and replaced by Republicans Liz Keating and Steve Goodin, respectively.
Republican Betsy Sundermann called for Young's resignation in an exasperated statement released Thursday morning.
"In the past year, we've called for the resignation of three indicted council members," she wrote. "Today moves that number up to four. Councilmember Young must resign immediately so we can focus on the real issues impacting Cincinnati. I’m tired of having to write these statements — the people of our city deserve much better than this revolving door of corruption."
Goodin took a less firm stance, praising Young for his long history of involvement in Cincinnati public life and saying he would wait for more information before supporting Sundermann's call for resignation.
"This is not a time to play politics with this," he said. "Mr. Young is an army veteran, a retired police officer. He's done some great things in the community. ... Deleting and destroying evidence can indeed be a big deal. Sometimes it only results in fines, so I think it's relatively rare for it to be the subject of a criminal allegation. That's why I want to know the rest of the facts before I start jumping out and saying who should resign and what folks should do. This is an unusual case."
Gwen McFarlin, Hamilton County's Democratic Party chair, said she'd also like to know more, saying in part “I don't see the intent, nor do I see new information that wasn't there, or hasn't been dealt with. It just doesn't seem justified to me.”
In a statement Thursday, Vice Mayor Chris Smitherman said he was saddened to learn another member of council had been indicted.
“I am praying for Council Member Young and his family,” he wrote. “I am heartened to learn that the investigation has been completed. It represents a new beginning for the city.”
Neither Young nor his attorneys had returned WCPO's request for comment by Thursday night.
In a city document signed by Young in 2018, he indicated either Seelbach or Dennard should appoint his replacement if his seat became vacant for any reason. Since Dennard's conviction and removal, only Seelbach remains eligible to do so if Young resigns or is removed.